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Field Notes: Overhaul of meat labels on hold

Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media

This is the latest installment of Harvest Public Media’s Field Notes, in which reporters talk to newsmakers and experts about important issues related to food production.

For several years now, there’s been a battle brewing over how much U.S. consumers need to know about where their meat comes from.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture is in the midst of implementinga new country-of-origin labeling rule, also known as COOL, that requires companies to label where animals were born, raised and slaughtered. The new rule also prohibits meat from two different animals from being comingled and sold in the same package.

From his vantage point, Ron Plain, a University of Missouri agricultural economist who focuses on the swine industry, believes the new COOL rule would be cumbersome for the food industry to implement.

“For most of the products we buy, they're labeled. If I buy a cotton shirt, it will tell me where it was made into a shirt. It won’t tell me where the cotton was grown. It won’t tell me where the cotton was woven into fabric. It just tells me in what country it became a shirt,” Plain said. “U.S. country-of-origin labeling on meat says knowing where it became a steak isn’t enough.”

The meatpacking industry is trying to stop the new COOL mandate, arguing that it would cost the industry roughly $200 million and lead to higher prices for beef, chicken, pork, lamb and goat meat.

In July, a coalition of nine industry groups -- including the American Meat Institute, the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and Mexico’s National Confederation of Livestock Organizations -- filed a lawsuit with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbiato block implementation of the rule. The group argues the mandate violates companies’ first amendment speech rights, that the USDA doesn’t have the authority to pass such a rule and that it offers little benefit to consumers while fundamentally altering the meat and poultry industries.

Earlier this month, a separate coalition representing farmers, rural communities and consumers responded by filing amotionthat defended the mandate. Its members – including the Ranchers Cattlemen Action Legal Fund (R-CALF USA), Food & Water Watch and the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, argue that consumers have the right to know more information about where their meat comes from and that producers benefit from labels that promote livestock that’s born and raised in the U.S.

“A lot of U.S. livestock producers’ perspective is, ‘If we can make the rules more onerous and keep out imported livestock, imported meat, that’s good for U.S. producers. If we can reduce the competition, the price of U.S. livestock and meat is likely to go up.’ And from a producer’s standpoint, that's positive,” said Plain. “From consumers’ standpoint, certainly there are some consumers who want to know everything about the food that they eat.”

U.S. District Court Judge Ketanji Jackson is expected to decide within the next two weeks whether or not the industry will have to implement the country-of-origin labeling rule. If so, expect the new labels to show up in supermarkets in November.

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