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Editors’ Picks: USDA boss wants stricter COOL

The U.S. government’s relaxed rules for mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL), which led Canada to set aside a planned trade challenge, have earned a frosty reception from the incoming U.S. administration.

President Barack Obama’s agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, said in a conference call Tuesday with U.S. consumer groups, farm groups and others that he plans to ask the U.S. meat industry to voluntarily follow “stricter guidelines” when applying new package labels meant to specify foods’ countries of origin.

Mary Clare Jalonick, a Washington reporter with the Associated Press (AP) news service, quoted conference call participants Wednesday as having been told that the Obama administration would go so far as to write new labeling rules if U.S. packers don’t voluntarily comply.

Supporters of mandatory COOL in the U.S. previously complained that the Bush administration’s amended final rule allows U.S. meat companies to lump meat from Canadian-born, U.S.-raised-and-slaughtered and Canadian-born-and-raised, U.S.-slaughtered animals into one mixed-origin category.

Conference call participants said Vilsack plans to provide full details on his position in a letter to the meat industry. The ag secretary, formerly the governor of Iowa, was scheduled to hold a news conference Wednesday morning, but cancelled it., a U.S. livestock and feed industry website, on Wednesday quoted the Washington, D.C. newsletter Congress Daily as reporting USDA will now ask for COOL packaging that specifies “the country in which the animal was born, the country in which it was raised, and the country in which it was slaughtered.”

Several U.S. 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.

News reports said the new U.S. administration sees Obama personally dealing with trade issues during a state visit Thursday with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Obama would also make any final decision on changes to COOL, reporters quoted Vilsack as saying.

Canada’s Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz had announced in mid-January that it would put its complaint against COOL to the World Trade Organization “in abeyance,” pending the application of the U.S. government’s final COOL rule, due to take effect next month. Interim COOL rules have been in effect since September.

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

But Ritz told reporters Tuesday that Canada is prepared to re-file at the WTO if the Obama administration decides to dump the final rule as amended.

“We don’t want to see thickening of the border,” the Canadian Press (CP) news agency quoted Ritz as saying on a conference call.

— The “Editors’ Picks” feature will highlight unusual-yet-true news from the world of farming, as gleaned from various sources by the editorial staff of the Farm Business Communications division.

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