USDA plans no new changes for COOL

USDA plans no new changes for COOL

While the U.S. government’s mandatory country-of-origin labelling law faces opposition from Canada and Mexico and a new round of scrutiny from global trade watchdogs, Washington has no plans to further toughen the law in the meantime.

Compliance with Washington’s mandatory country-of-origin labelling (COOL) laws among U.S. meat packers and food processors is strong enough that there is “no need to change” the legislation, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials said Thursday.

USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), which monitors processors’ compliance with COOL, said Thursday it has “withdrawn” a February 2009 letter of warning to U.S. food industry stakeholders from President Barack Obama’s ag secretary Tom Vilsack.

Vilsack’s letter, sent shortly before USDA’s final rule on COOL took effect in March 2009, had urged the food sector to “voluntarily adopt” a tighter interpretation of the rule than Canada had expected from the outgoing George W. Bush administration.

Depending on industry’s performance, Vilsack said at the time, he would “carefully consider whether modifications to the (COOL) rule will be necessary to achieve the intent of Congress.”

Vilsack’s “suggestions” led the Canadian government to restart its challenge of COOL at the World Trade Organization, after Ottawa put its WTO challenge in abeyance in January 2009, pending the application of the final COOL rule.

The WTO challenges filed by Canada and Mexico led to a critical report by the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body in November 2011, which found certain aspects of COOL to be in breach of Washington’s WTO commitments. The Obama administration announced last month it will appeal the DSB ruling.

Under COOL, U.S. retailers must provide customers with information about the origin of various food products, including beef, pork, lamb, goat, chicken, fish, fruits, vegetables and certain nuts.

Critics of COOL, such as U.S. packers and Canadian livestock producers, say the rules are more of a trade barrier than a consumer information tool, in that the costs of maintaining segregated processing lines have led several U.S. plants to dial back their imports of Canadian livestock and meat.

“Nothing has changed”

AMS, since 2009, has “closely reviewed industry compliance with COOL,” the service’s acting administrator Robert Keeney said in a release Thursday.

USDA and state counterparts last year ran over 5,000 initial and follow-up compliance reviews of U.S. retailers, finding an estimated 96 per cent compliance rate for commodities covered by COOL, he said.

Thus, Keeney said Thursday, he believes the COOL regulations are “working well” and there “is no need to change the regulations.”

Despite the ongoing trade dispute — which, if resolved in Canada’s favour, could either eventually force changes to COOL or allow Canada and Mexico to set up import tariffs in retaliation — U.S. retailers still “must comply fully with the current regulations,” AMS said.

COOL, meanwhile, “will remain in full force and effect as the United States continues to defend the COOL requirements at the WTO.”

“Nothing has changed,” Keeney reiterated Thursday. “Business will operate as usual and the COOL regulations will remain in force until (USDA) sees a need to propose changes to them.”

Related stories:
U.S. COOL to go ahead under scrutiny, Feb. 21, 2009
It’s official: Canada takes COOL back to WTO, May 7, 2009
WTO rips U.S. COOL law in win for Canada, Nov. 18, 2011

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