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U.S. COOL to go ahead under scrutiny

In a move expected to create more uncertainty for importers of Canadian livestock and meat, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s final rule on country-of-origin labelling (COOL) will take effect as planned next month.

President Barack Obama’s ag secretary, Tom Vilsack, confirmed that much in a release Friday, but Vilsack also published a letter he wrote to U.S. food industry stakeholders Friday, inviting them to “voluntarily adopt” practices that may tighten COOL beyond importers’ comfort zones.

USDA, Vilsack said in a release, “will be closely reviewing industry compliance with the rule and will evaluate the practicality of the suggestions for voluntary action in my letter.”

Depending on industry’s performance after the final rule takes effect March 16, as outlined in his letter, Vilsack said he would then “carefully consider whether modifications to the (COOL) rule will be necessary to achieve the intent of Congress.”

The “suggestions” in Vilsack’s letter include:

  • tighter terminology on labels, including information about what production step took place in a given country, such as “Born in Country X and Raised and Slaughtered in Country Y”;
  • voluntary labelling of processed foods, for which the definitions in the final rule “may be too broadly drafted” — meaning that in Vilsack’s view, products subject to curing, smoking, steaming, grilling or broiling should include a voluntary label; and
  • a tighter inventory allowance — meaning that where a ground beef package, for example, could previously bear the name a country for up to 60 days even if product from that country isn’t in inventory, that number should be voluntarily reduced to 10 days, Vilsack said, to limit the levels of product without clear COOL and to give the label more credibility.

COOL requires labeling at U.S. retail for muscle cuts, ground beef, veal, pork, lamb, goat and chicken; wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish; fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables; peanuts, pecans, macadamia nuts, and ginseng sold by designated retailers.

The final rule, following an interim rule that took effect last September, outlines requirements for labeling covered commodities and the recordkeeping requirements for retailers and suppliers.

The final rule also prescribes specific criteria that must be met for a commodity to bear a “United States Country of Origin” declaration. The rule also contains provisions for labeling covered commodities of foreign origin.

Several U.S. meat packers and processors have in recent months curtailed their imports of Canadian livestock and meat, citing the expense of dedicating separate production lines to handle imported animals or products.

Canada’s Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz announced in mid-January that Ottawa would put a previously-filed complaint against COOL to the World Trade Organization “in abeyance,” pending the application of the U.S. government’s final COOL rule.

Mexico, which also filed a WTO complaint against COOL, opted to continue with its action.

Ritz has since told reporters that Canada is prepared to take its complaint back to the WTO if the Obama administration were to decide to scrap the final rule in the form that was put forward by the previous Bush administration.

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