Vilsack May Rewrite COOL Rule If Labels Too Vague

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“Secretary Vilsack is trying to move the dial back, and politically have his cake and eat it, too”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says he may rewrite the U. S. rule that requires country-of-origin labels on meat sold in grocery stores if the food industry does not voluntarily make labels more explicit.

The labelling law, which has raised trade concerns from Canada and Mexico, will take effect on March 16 as scheduled, Vilsack said Feb. 20.

But he said the rule could fail to satisfy a consumer’s right to know the origin of their food and asked the food industry to voluntarily put more information on the labels.

USDA will monitor the industry reaction, Vilsack said.

“Depending on this performance, I will carefully consider whether modifications to the rule will be necessary to achieve the intent of Congress,” Vilsack wrote in a letter to meatpackers and foodmakers.

The move was cheered by groups who said the rule – finalized during the last few days of the Bush administration – was riddled with loopholes.

“This is about truth in labelling,” said Tom Buis, president of the National Farmers Union. “There’s no denying the demand for country-of-origin labelling and under Secretary Vilsack’s guidance, consumers will know the true origin of their food.”

There’s no guarantee Vilsack’s request will result in more expansive labels, but Dave Juday, a senior analyst with World Perspectives, said it jeopardizes a compromise that took lawmakers and industry six years and two farm bills to broker.

“I think it’s wishful thinking,” Juday said.

“Secretary Vilsack is trying to move the dial back, and politically have his cake and eat it, too,” he added.

Meat packers and food makers will not be legally compelled to comply with Vilsack’s request, said Mark Dopp, vice-president of regulatory affairs at the American Meat Institute.

The AMI’s members were still analyzing the voluntary measures, which come at a time when meat packers grapple with high costs, steep losses, plant closures and recession-shocked consumers who do not want to pay more for groceries, Dopp said.

“You can’t just flick the switch and change,” he said, noting it took companies months to change their processes to adjust to the existing USDA rule.

The voluntary measures could affect “hundreds or thousands” of processors who are exempt from the rule and have not yet taken any steps to add country of origin to labels, he said.

Labelling became mandatory last Sept. 30. USDA is allowing a six-month transition period. The Obama administration gave the rule a second look when it took over in January.

Vilsack suggested changes in three areas:

While the rule allows meat to be identified as the product of two countries, such as Canada and the United States, Vilsack suggested labels say where the animal was born, where it was raised and where it was slaughtered.

The rule exempts processed meat, but Vilsack said it “would be appropriate” to identify country of origin for cured, smoked, broiled, grilled and steamed meat.

The rule says ground meat labels can list countries that supplied livestock for the past 60 days. But Vilsack said he wants that narrowed to the last 10 days before production.

Mexico has launched a World Trade Organization case against the rule.

Canada initially said the labelling law was a trade barrier that depressed prices for its livestock, but shelved its WTO complaint last month in the belief U. S. rules would give packers more flexibility in handling livestock.

But Canada’s Agriculture Minister, Gerry Ritz, warned that Canada would revive its WTO challenge if protectionist U. S. rules were put in place.

The labelling law applies to packages of beef, chicken, lamb, pork and goat meat sold in grocery stores, as well as farm-raised seafood and fruits and vegetables.

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