WASHINGTON, March 3, 2015 – The Obama administration won’t commit to providing Congress with recommendations for overhauling the country-of-origin labeling law for meat.

The fiscal 2015 omnibus spending bill directed USDA to provide the recommendations by May 1, anticipating that the administration will lose an appeal at the World Trade Organization in a case brought by Canada and Mexico.

The chairman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, Robert Aderholt, unsuccessfully pressed Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and a USDA undersecretary today to promise to meet the May 1 target.

Edward Avalos, the USDA’s undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, would say little more than this today: “At USDA we stand ready to work with Congress on the next steps.”

Vilsack last week put the onus on Congress to change the COOL law, assuming the WTO appeal fails, but he didn’t agree to make recommendations. He did say that Congress may have to rewrite the law to implement some kind of “generic” label that wouldn’t require segregation of livestock.

“We either win the appeal or Congress has to change the law,” Vilsack said.

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Aderholt, R-Ala., told reporters after today's hearing that he still expected USDA to develop recommendations.

“We’ll give them a little time. We communicated to the secretary last week and the undersecretary today that this is something that is important to Congress and that we expect,” he said.

The National Farmers Union, which supports the labeling requirements, said the recommendations that Aderholt wants are premature. “If the U.S. wins the appeal, no changes are necessary,” said the group’s president, Roger Johnson. “If the U.S. loses, it is possible that an amendment to the law would be needed. Any amendment is likely to be very narrow in nature, and it is pointless to speculate until the WTO issues a decision.”

Canada and Mexico would be authorized to retaliate against U.S. exports should they prevail in the case, a prospect likely to bring heavy pressure on Congress to overhaul or repeal the COOL law, which dates back to the 2002 farm bill.

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