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New Country-of-Origin Labeling Regulations: No New Law

After an Appellate Body of the World Trade Association (WTO) struck down the USA’s County of Origin Labeling (COOL), the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said the international panel did not have the authority to change American law.

With a fast-approaching May 23 deadline to be in compliance with the WTO, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has forwarded amended regulations for COOL to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The new regulations are intended to put the U.S. back into compliance with WTO without the need to go back to Congress.

USDA has been getting all kinds of behind the scenes help on options for how COOL can continue with the confines of WTO rulings.

Stewart and Stewart, international trade lawyers based in Washington D.C. penned an 11-page memorandum for its clients, showing how USDA can achieve compliance without changing the U.S. COOL law.

The international trade attorneys wrote the memo to help two consumer and environmental groups, Food and Water Watch and Public Citizen, and two agricultural interests, the National Farmers Union (NFU) and U.S. Cattlemen’s Association (USCA), work the problem.

“Consumers deserve clear, transparent and informative COOL labels and WTO has no place meddling in American grocery carts,” said Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. “President Obama campaigned to protect country of origin labels in 2008 and he can do so again by implementing these straightforward improvements to COOL.”

COOL was passed as a part of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 and amended in the 2008 Farm Bill, going into effect in 2008, with regulations being put forward in 2009.

After fully taking effect, both Mexico and Canada filed objections to COOL with the WTO. Both a WTO panel and appellate body ruled against the U.S. COOL law, although for different reasoning. The labels are required for meats, vegetable, fruits and some nuts.

Mexico and Canada argued COOL labels impose regulatory costs on livestock and meat being exported to the U.S. that exceed their consumer benefits. In the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (the TBT agreement), the U.S. is prohibited from giving less favorable treatment to imported cattle and hogs than provided to domestic livestock.

USDA has not released a copy of the draft regulations presented to OMB. The draft regulations will be subject to a comment period, but only after OMB signs off on them on behalf of the White House. The regulations will apply to muscle cuts of beef, veal, lamb, pork, goat, and chicken.

The Stewart and Stewart memo says the deficiencies that must be addressed in the COOL regulations are: lack of information, no specifics for the listing order when multiple countries are involved, meat that is exclusively of U.S. origin may be listed as being of mixed origin, and the exemption for food not sold at retail.

The memo also provides suggested language for four different types of COOL labels under the new regulations. Suggested language for four labels are:

Label A: “Produce of an animal born, raised, and slaughtered in the United States.”

Label B: “Product of an animal born in (Country X), and raised and slaughtered in the United States.”

Label C: “Product of an animal born and raised in (Country X), and slaughtered in the United States.

Label D: “Product of an animal born, raised and slaughtered in (Country X).”

“The comprehensive legal analysis demonstrates that the USDA can come into compliance with the WTO appellate body ruling by amending the COOL regulations,” National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said. “Changes to the COOL legislation are not necessary to achieve compliance. U.S. producers are rightfully proud of their products and consumers want to know where their food comes from. Additionally, these remedies should not result in any increase in consumers’ retail prices. Achieving compliance is a win-win situation for all interested parties.”

The WTO said that while the United States can require meat labeling, current U.S. COOL rules do not meet WTO standards, according to an NFU statement.

“Based on the analysis, we stand in support of tightening U.S. COOL regulations,” said U.S. Cattlemen’s Association President Jon Wooster. “USCA is proud of our U.S. raised products and remain committed to this issue, while continuing to vigorously advocate for U.S. cattle producers as well as every consumer’s right to information regarding where their meat products originate and are raised.”

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