USDA publishes final COOL rule

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued its final version of the changes to country-of-origin labeling (COOL) for muscle cut commodities last week.

The rule changes how  these commodities are labeled to require the origin designation to include information not only on where the meat came from (currently often listed as “Product of the U.S.”), but specifically where each step occurred such as where the animal was born, where it was raised and where it was slaughtered. Additionally, the rule also would not allow muscle cuts of different origins to be commingled, according to the USDA.

COOL, which was implemented in 2009, provides information to consumers about where the food they purchase comes from, including meat, vegetables, fruit, fish and shellfish.

Following a complaint filed by Canada and Mexico last summer, the World Trade Organization (WTO) Appellate Body ruled the existing COOL law violated WTO rules on technical barriers to trade. The appellate body found COOL was not allowable because it led to “less favorable treatment” of meat from other countries and more favorable treatment of meat from the U.S.

The agency first announced the changes in March. The final rule was issued May 23 – the same day as the deadline the WTO Appellate Body gave the U.S. to comply with its ruling. During the rule’s comment period, the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) received more than 900 comments from a range of stakeholders, including consumers, industry and trade associations. Of those, about 450 comments (which included petitions) supported the rule and about 470 comments opposed the rule, most often because of the cost of implementation (see page 15 of the final rule).

“USDA remains confident that these changes will improve the overall operation of the program and also bring the mandatory COOL requirements into compliance with U.S. international trade obligations,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.

Although the WTO has yet to respond to the rule, Canada’s Minister of Agriculture Gerry Ritz and Minister of International Trade and Minister for the Asia-Pacific Gateway issued a joint statement expressing their concern and disappointment with the rule.

“Canada is extremely disappointed with the regulatory changes put forward by the United States today with respect to COOL. These changes will not bring the United States into compliance with its WTO obligations. These changes will increase discrimination against Canadian cattle and hogs and increase damages to industry on both sides of the border,” the statement reads. “Canada will consider all options at its disposal, including, if necessary, the use of retaliatory measures.”

During a trip to the U.S. earlier this year, Ritz said Canada would consider almost $1 billion in tariffs on U.S. products if the U.S. refused to comply with the WTO ruling.

Some U.S. trade groups, including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, also expressed disappointment with the ruling. Other groups, such as the National Farmers Union, showed their support for the rule.

The USDA estimates more than 7,000 companies will need to update country of origin information on their labels.

Read the full rule here.

For our previous coverage of COOL, click here.

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