WASHINGTON – The US Department of Agriculture released its final modified Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) provisions for muscle cuts of meat, much to the consternation of industry stakeholders and international trade partners.

Under the revised COOL regulation, meat packers must label muscle cuts of meat with information about where each of the production steps occurred. The provisions remove the allowance for commingled muscle cuts. The rule goes into effect May 23, and the final rule will be published in the May 24 Federal Register. USDA estimates the cost of implementation to be as much as $192.1 million, which “will be incurred by intermediaries (primarily packers and processors of muscle cut covered commodities) and retailers subject to requirements of mandatory COOL.”

“USDA remains confident that these changes will improve the overall operation of the program and also bring the mandatory COOL requirements into compliance with US international trade obligations,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

But meat industry groups strongly disagree. Several meat, poultry and food retail associations urged Vilsack to delay implementation of the revised rule. Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said in April that Canada would consider imposing sanctions of up to $980 million a year against the US for failing to comply with a WTO ruling that said US COOL violated trade agreements.

In a joint statement from Ritz and Minister of International Trade Ed Fast, Canada made its position on US COOL clear.

“Canada is extremely disappointed with the regulatory changes put forward by the United States today with respect to COOL. These changes will not bring the United States into compliance with its WTO obligations. These changes will increase discrimination against Canadian cattle and hogs and increase damages to industry on both sides of the border,” the statement read in part.

“Canada will consider all options at its disposal, including, if necessary, the use of retaliatory measures. We will continue to stand with Canadian cattle and hog producers against these unfair measures and we will not stop until we succeed,” the statement added.

Scott George, president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said, “We are deeply disappointed with this short-sighted action by the USDA. Our largest trading partners have already said that these provisions will not bring the United States into compliance with our WTO obligations and will result in increased discrimination against imported products and in turn retaliatory tariffs or other authorized trade sanctions. As we said in comments submitted to USDA, ‘any retaliation against US beef would be devastating for our producers.’

“While trying to make an untenable mandate fit with our international trade obligations, USDA chose to set up US cattle producers for financial losses. Moreover, this rule will place a greater record-keeping burden on producers, feeders and processors through the born, raised and harvested label,” he added.
The North American Meat Association (NAMA) strongly opposed the revisions and has also asked to delay implementation.

“There will be a six-month delay in enforcement at retail, but that will neither give time for livestock imported into the US under the current regulations to clear the system nor time for industry to make the necessary changes to comply,” said Jeremy Russell, director of communications and government relations for NAMA, in a letter to the association’s members.

Russell added that the association would “continue to pursue means to avoid the significant economic and legal fallout that this injurious rule creates.”