COOL to Proceed as Planned while Secretary Vilsack asks Industry to Follow Stricter Standards
February 24, 2009
On January 20, 2009, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the final rule for mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL) will go into effect as scheduled on March 16, 2009. However, in a letter addressed to industry representatives that same day, Vilsack requested that the industry voluntarily adopt stricter COOL requirements than those contained in the final rule.
The request follows a White House mandated review of the final COOL regulation issued during the last days of the Bush Administration. Although Vilsack determined that allowing the rule to go into effect as scheduled and carefully monitoring implementation and compliance by retailers would be the best avenue to evaluate the program, he has repeatedly stated that the final rule does not reflect the intent of Congress to allow consumers to clearly determine where the meat they buy originates.
In particular, the USDA is concerned about the regulation’s treatment of products from multiple countries, exemptions provided to processed food, and time allowances provided to manufacturers for labeling ground meat products. In light of these concerns, Vilsack has sent a letter to industry representatives requesting that they voluntarily adopt the following practices:
- Labeling of product from multiple countries of origin. In order to provide consumers with sufficient information about the origin of products, processors should voluntarily include information about what production step occurred in each country when multiple countries appear on the label. For example, animals born and raised in Country X and slaughtered in Country Y might be labeled as “Born and Raised in country X and Slaughtered in Country Y.” Animals born in Country X but raised and slaughtered in Country Y might be labeled as “Born in Country X and Raised and Slaughtered in Country Y.”
- Processed foods. The definition of processed foods contained in the Final Rule may be too broadly drafted. Even if products are subject to curing, smoking, broiling, grilling, or steaming, voluntary labeling would be appropriate.
- Inventory Allowances. The language in the Final Rule allows a label for ground meat product to bear the name of a country, even if product from that country was not present in a processor’s inventory, for up to 60 days. This provision allows for labels to be used in a way that does not clearly indicate the product’s country of origin. Reducing the time allowance to ten days would limit the amount of product with these labels and enhance the credibility of the label.
The letter also states that the USDA will be closely reviewing industry compliance with the regulation and its performance in relation to the suggestions for voluntary action, and depending on the industry’s performance determine modifications to the rule will be necessary to achieve the intent of Congress.
These new suggestions for voluntary action not only have the potential to broaden the scope of products covered under the COOL program and increase the burden on processors, but also to disrupt a compromise aimed at dissuading