By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor
OMAHA (DTN) -- USDA officials expect to meet the department's Thursday deadline to modify mandatory country-of-origin labels for meat due to a World Trade Organization ruling even though the USDA proposal remains under review at the White House Office of Management and Budget.
Despite complaints from Canada and Mexico, USDA has moved ahead with attempts to rewrite its rule following a trade case in the WTO against the U.S. that concluded USDA's original label discriminated against livestock from other countries. Canada has threatened to offer a list of U.S. products for retaliatory tariffs if the new rule goes into effect.
USDA has a May 23 deadline to demonstrate it had complied or responded to the WTO ruling. Yet, as of Monday, the USDA proposal to rewrite COOL continued to be reviewed by other Obama administration officials. A USDA spokesman responding to an email Monday maintained USDA still planned to meet the Thursday deadline for its new labeling requirements.
Backers of country-of-origin labeling touted a new survey from the Consumer Federation of America citing that 90% of Americans favor labeling the origin of meat even though at least some members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees seek to repeal country-of-origin labeling.
The survey gave a needed injection of support to backers of country-of-origin labeling, or COOL. According to the CFA poll of 1,000 people, 87% favor, "strongly or somewhat" a label that would require retailers to label the country in which animals were born, raised and processed. Slightly more people backed a label that also noted the fact that the meat was processed in the U.S.
"The survey results are a further indication of what we have known for some time: Consumers overwhelmingly want to know more about the origins of their food, and farmers and ranchers want to provide this information," said National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson. "These findings, coupled with the recent withdrawal of two short-sighted amendments to the Senate and House's respective farm bills that would have negatively impacted country-of-origin labeling, are promising indications that country-of-origin labeling is vitally important and here to stay."
COOL in the U.S. is in its 11th year of being perfected after originally passed into law with the 2002 farm bill. Funding freezes in Congress blocked implementation of the labeling rule. It wasn't until the 2008 farm bill was passed that USDA actually began to implement the law. Canada and Mexico sued in the WTO quickly after.
The modified rule from USDA would require more information for muscle cuts on where each of the production steps -- born, raised and slaughtered -- occurred. For instance, a steer born in Canada, but raised and slaughtered in the U.S. would be labeled effectively in that manner, "Born in Canada, Raised and Slaughtered in the United States."
For all domestic animals, the label would change from "Product of the U.S." to "Born, Raised and Slaughtered in the U.S."
Retailers also would be prevented from commingling muscle cuts from different countries in packaging. Currently, a label for multiple cuts of meat may state "Product of the United States, Mexico and Canada." Now, meat from animals from different countries will have to be segregated during processing to provide more accurate information.
In marking up their respective farm bills last week, Republican members of both committees introduced amendments to eliminate mandatory COOL, only to withdraw them. It's likely amendments will come to the floor on COOL, particularly if the Canadians raise Cain over the new USDA rule. Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., who was agriculture secretary when the Bush administration largely worked to delay or eliminate COOL, told fellow senators, "We have bitten off more than we can chew" with the COOL rewrite.
"The proposed solution from USDA would be more of a burden for everyone in the value chain," Johanns said.
Johanns also challenged the way the new proposal would prohibit commingling meat from livestock from different countries
"Talk about a regulatory nightmare," he said. Nonetheless, Johanns withdrew his proposed amendment in committee.
In the House, Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., also introduced an amendment to eliminate COOL but withdrew it. Taking the time to speak against Scott's proposal was fellow GOP Rep. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, whose cattle ranchers largely back COOL.
The House bill includes language that would require USDA's Office of Chief Economist to conduct an economic analysis on the new rule within six months of the new farm bill being enacted.
Jon Wooster, president of the U.S. Cattlemen's Association, said the Consumer Federation of America study was released at a perfect time with the USDA deadline this week.
"It is proof that consumers not only want their meat labeled as to origin but they also approve of USDA's proposed resolutions. I urge individuals and groups to reference this survey as we move forward with issues surrounding COOL in the development of farm policy legislation," Wooster said. "As the 2013 Farm Bill proceeds in Congress, COOL opponents will seize any opportunity to undermine the program as already evidenced by the inclusion of marker language in the House version of the Farm Bill. This new consumer survey should put to rest any question about what consumers want. We thank CFA for undertaking this consumer poll."
Chris Clayton can be reached at email@example.com
© Copyright 2013 DTN/The Progressive Farmer. All rights reserved.