Vilsack pushes for stricter, voluntary COOL

by Bryan Salvage
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WASHINGTON – Stricter labels on fresh meat and other foods that would show more clearly where an animal or food came from are being called for by the Obama Administration, according to The Associated Press. The move came as Obama prepared to visit Canada— a longtime opponent of country-of-origin labels — on Feb. 19. Both Canada and Mexico have protested the labeling in a complaint to the World Trade Organization.

Consumer groups, farm groups and meat-industry leaders were told Feb. 17 by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that he will ask the meat industry to voluntarily follow stricter guidelines for new package labels designed to specify a food's country of origin. The Agriculture Department abruptly canceled an announcement of the decision Wednesday morning, with little explanation.

In calling for the stricter guidelines, the Obama administration would be breaking from rules announced by the Agriculture Department shortly before President George W. Bush left office. Supporters of the labeling law — first enacted in a wide-ranging farm bill last year — were not happy with the Bush administration's version of the rules, which they said allowed meat companies to be vague about where an animal was born, raised and slaughtered.

According to comments from Mr. Vilsack on Feb. 17, if the industry does not comply with the stricter guidelines, the administration will write new rules.

The labeling requirements have long been debated in Congress. While the meat industry and retailers responsible for the labels have protested the changes — saying they are burdensome and could lead to higher prices — consumer groups and northern state ranchers who compete with the Canadian beef industry favor them.

Last year all sides worked out a compromise during debate over the farm bill, but much of the law was left open to interpretation by the U.S.D.A.

Some of the law's leading opponents have been grocery stores and large meatpacking companies — many of which mix U.S. and Mexican beef — and other businesses involved in getting products to supermarkets.

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