C.O.O.L. law 'back on track'

by Bryan Salvage
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WASHINGTON – Following an unexpected period of regulatory review by the Obama administration of the final rule for the country-of-origin-labeling program, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently announced C.O.O.L. will go into effect as scheduled on March 16. A letter inviting companies to follow additional voluntary labeling practices was also written.

Published in the Federal Register Jan.15, 2009, the rule has been under regulatory review by U.S.D.A. pursuant to a Jan. 20, 2009, memorandum from Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s chief of staff.

"I strongly support country-of-origin labeling -- it's a critical step toward providing consumers with additional information about the origin of their food," Mr. Vilsack said. "The Department of Agriculture will be closely reviewing industry compliance with the rule and will evaluate the practicality of the suggestions for voluntary action in my letter." (Click to view letter.)

Mr. Vilsack determined during the regulatory review process that allowing the rule to go into effect and carefully monitoring implementation and compliance by retailers and their suppliers is the best way to evaluate the program. Results during the evaluation period will help Mr. Vilsack decide whether or not additional rulemaking is necessary to provide consumers with adequate information.

The C.O.O.L. regulation requires country-of-origin labeling for muscle cuts and ground beef (including veal), pork, lamb, goat and chicken among other products sold by designated retailers. These commodities must be labeled at retail to indicate the country of origin.

Requirements for labeling covered commodities and the recordkeeping requirements for retailers and suppliers are outlined in the final rule. The rule prescribes specific criteria that must be met for a commodity to bear a "United States Country of Origin" declaration. The rule also contains provisions for labeling covered commodities of foreign origin. For complete information on the C.O.O.L. statute and regulation, go to www.ams.usda.gov/cool.

"When the final rule becomes effective, we anticipate that almost 95% of beef and pork products eligible to bear a ‘Product of the USA’ label will bear such labeling," said J. Patrick Boyle, president and chief executive officer of the American Meat Institute.

But Mr. Boyle added, "To the extent that companies are able and elect to go beyond these federal labeling requirements, as requested by Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, is an individual company decision." 

Poultry companies have invested considerable amounts of resources and time in an effort to meet the mandatory requirements for U.S.D.A.’s Country of Origin Labeling rule, Bill Roenigk, senior vice president and chief economist, National Chicken Council, told MEATPOULTRY.com.

"These companies and the N.C.C. will be conferring with the appropriate U.S.D.A. officials to better determine the changes involved in the ‘voluntary’ aspects of the secretary’s announcement," he added.

Jay Wenther, executive director, American Association of Meat Processors, said time and consumer purchasing habits will reveal "the true importance of this labeling requirement." He iterated further labeling systems to exceed the current federal-labeling requirements should be an individual company choice, but he is concerned.

"The suggestions outlined within Secretary Vilsack’s open letter to the industry should be concerning to more than the meat industry," Mr. Wenther said. "He outlines tasks that may be unachievable, and the meat industry --as well as other industries that supply the meat industry -- may find it difficult to be in compliance and financially unfeasible to establish."

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