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Meat labeling advocates back new farm bill

Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media

Proponents of a new labeling rule that gives consumers more information about where their meat comes from say they are pleased with the new farm bill President Obama signed into law on Friday. That’s because the bill does not include any significant changes to current country-of-origin labeling rules, known as COOL.

COOL dates back to the farm bill of 2002, but was first implemented in 2009. The debate heated up last May, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a new rule requiring meat processors and packers to list on labels where the animal the meat came from was born, raised and slaughtered. Previously, only the countries the animal passed through had to be listed. The USDA’s updated rule went into full effect in November.

Since the new COOL rule was passed, it has been challenged in federal court by a coalition of meat industry groups, including the American Meat Institute and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. The governments of Canada and Mexico are also arguing before the World Trade Organization that the rule is not fair to them.

Consumer advocates, such as the Consumer Federation of America, and groups that represent many smaller farmers and ranchers like the National Farmers Union and R-Calf United Stockgrowers of America, countered those claims by saying consumers want to know more about where their meat is coming from.

The COOL battle has been playing out during farm bill negotiations in the past year, with meat packers and processors pushing legislators to change, or even repeal, the provision. But in the new farm bill there are no significant changes to the rule. That’s welcome news for fans of meat labeling.

“Our hats are off to the leaders in Congress that have begun to listen to independent producers,” Bill Bullard, who heads up RCALF-USA, said in an email. “The 2014 Farm Bill enables cattle producers, who have no means to independently require retailers to distinguish their products from imported products, to nevertheless inform consumers as to where their beef was born, raised and slaughtered.”

The National Farmers Union also backed the way COOL was written into the bill.

“Farmers and ranchers take pride in making high quality products available to consumers, who can then make an educated purchasing decision at the grocery store,” said NFU President Roger Johnson in an email. “Consumers continue to demand more information about their food. This is why it’s a victory that COOL was not harmed in the farm bill.”

The new farm bill does however require the USDA to conduct an economic feasibility analysis of the impact of COOL on American consumers, producers, and packers. The USDA already conducted such an analysis leading up to the release of the amended rule in May, which estimated it would cost meat packers, processors and retailers about $123.3 million to implement COOL. The meat industry’s implementation estimate came in at $400 million.

Opponents of COOL admit to having lost this round, but are already looking ahead to other pending challenges to the rule.

“We are disappointed along with many others that mandatory country-of-origin labeling wasn’t addressed in the current farm bill. We have opposed it since it was originally included in the 2002 Farm Bill and remain opposed today,” Eric Mittenthal of the American Meat Institute said in an email.

A panel of federal appeals court judges is studying an injunction filed by AMI and other meat industry groups that would block implementation of the rule until the case is ruled on in district court, and  could issue a ruling any day now. The WTO will begin to hear testimony on the trade dispute raised by Canada and Mexico February 18. 

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