WASHINGTON, Feb. 10, 2016 - USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service is now willing to consider setting up a voluntary country-of-origin labeling program for beef and pork after Congress abolished the mandatory law in December, but it could be more than a year before the agency makes a decision, according to government officials.

As it stands now, FSIS officials tell Agri-Pulse that the agency just doesn’t know if there will be enough demand for the costly and time-consuming effort to set up a new labeling system from scratch and to go through the federal rule-making process to make it happen.

If FSIS were to set up the program, would there be a hundred meat producers a month that sign up, or a hundred a year, an official asked, adding: “That’s what we’re looking at. We’re looking at the data.”

It’s a similar explanation to what FSIS gave to industry representatives in a stakeholders meeting last week. Some attendees expressed surprise because they had been expecting more after FSIS posted a notice on Dec. 21 that said the agency was “developing guidance for federally inspected establishments related to geographic claims they may wish to make on beef and pork muscle cuts and ground products with the COOL regulations no longer being enforced.”

Meanwhile ardent COOL-supporting organizations like the National Farmers Union and the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association are plotting their next move to put some pressure on FSIS.

“We’re evaluating our options and what’s possible at USDA for moving forward on country of origin labeling,” said Barbara Patterson, a government relations representative for NFU. “We’ll talk with our members at our March convention. This remains a priority issue for the National Farmers Union and we’ll figure out a solution that works for our members.”

Jess Peterson, a lobbyist for the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, said the group remains very concerned that Congress has created confusion in the marketplace by repealing COOL.

“We’ll be working to fix that by all means possible,” Peterson said.

But there is opposition too. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association believes a voluntary COOL program is a bad idea that could cause a renewed international squabble with the U.S. again on the losing end, said NCBA spokesman Chase Adams.

Last year marked the end of a protracted World Trade Organization dispute in which Canada and Mexico successfully fought the mandatory COOL law in the U.S. The two countries argued that the labeling law resulted in billions of dollars of lost trade because their livestock were discriminated against. To comply with the law, foreign cattle and pigs had to be segregated at slaughter and feeding facilities and that extra cost hurt business, the countries argued.

And the WTO agreed. Last May, a WTO panel ended the dispute by rejecting a U.S. appeal to an earlier decision that the COOL law treated Canada and Mexico unfairly. In December, the panel announced that the two countries had the right to seek about $1 billion annually in trade retaliation, using tariffs on a wide variety of American exports.

Shortly afterwards, Congress completely repealed COOL in an omnibus spending package.

But now that COOL has been repealed and FSIS is solely in charge of regulating meat labels, labeling advocates say Congress doesn’t need to be involved in creating a voluntary system.

AMS still offers a process verified program that allows ranchers to market their livestock as “born and raised in the USA.” Although that does not mean the meat from those animals can automatically be labeled as such, FSIS officials say they are willing to judge requests for beef and pork labels on a “case-by-case” level.

Still, it’s not enough for groups like the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association that want a new proposed rule from USDA, laying out a nationwide system and definitions.

But it’s still dangerous on an international level, opponents argue.

“Anything on a regulatory standpoint is going to have the same violation of WTO rules as what we just went through,” said NCBA’s Adams about the renewed requests for a voluntary COOL program.


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