WASHINGTON — A compromise provision in the U.S. House Agriculture Committee's 2007 Farm Bill proposal addresses several problems in the mandatory country-of-origin labeling requirements for beef, pork and lamb, according to representatives from the processing and ranching trade groups.
While several legislative hurdles remain for the bill, the compromise provision was claimed as a victory by both advocates and opponents of the labeling laws, and industry sources told SN that the measure should closely resemble the final COOL regulations for beef, pork and lamb when the rules are implemented Sept. 30, 2008.
The provision includes three categories of labeling. One label will be reserved for products from animals born, raised and slaughtered in the United States. Another label will highlight products exclusively from other countries. A third label will indicate that a product is from an animal that was not exclusively born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S., but is instead a “Product of the U.S. and Country X, Y or Z.” Finally, ground meat products can contain a list of countries from which the final product may have originated.
Processors also said that the measure softens the stringent record-keeping requirements and related penalties outlined in the COOL regulations as they originally appeared in the 2002 Farm Bill. Those record-keeping requirements were one of the most contentious aspects of the bill for food retailers and large processors, which had claimed the documentation requirements were unclear, and that a lack of exemption for cattle born, purchased or imported prior to the effective date of the law placed an impossible paper-trail burden on producers and ranchers.
“We commend Chairman Peterson, Ranking Member Goodlatte and Rep. David Scott for recognizing that country-of-origin labeling in the 2002 Farm Bill is unworkable and costly,” J. Patrick Boyle, president of the Washington-based American Meat Institute, said in a statement. “We thank them for providing a framework to try to fix the 2002 statute. We know it was their intention to address problems associated with the 2002 country-of-origin labeling mandate and we hope this legislation will do so. … Ultimately, it is the meat industry's goal that these new country-of-origin labels provide meaningful information to consumers beyond what is already provided on imported meat products.”
Similarly, the Billings, Mont.-based Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF USA) — a lobbying group for independent ranchers that supports the COOL laws and has long been at odds with AMI and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association in this regard — described the compromise as a “tremendous victory,” noting that the law had survived five years of delays and several attempts at elimination.
“Only cattle born, raised and slaughtered in the United States will qualify to receive the ‘Product of the U.S.’ label, and there is no doubt that our members have played a significant role in defending country-of-origin labeling,” said Bill Bullard, R-CALF USA's chief executive officer.
The compromise comes amid a blur of food and product contamination scares originating in China. Although COOL opponents have long said that the debate over country-of-origin labeling should remain separate from discussions regarding import inspections and food safety, the stream of bad news from China has clouded the issue and has quickly turned popular opinion in favor of COOL. Notably, a telephone poll released this month by Consumer Reports magazine suggested that 92% of Americans believe that imported foods should be labeled by country of origin.
“Putting a ‘Product of China’ label on an unsafe product is not a service to the consumer,” said Joe Schuele, director of trade media for Centennial, Colo.-based NCBA. “That product should never see the inside of a store. If it's unsafe, it shouldn't be sold, with or without a label. But that's unfortunately the way this debate has turned.”
Schuele added that NCBA remained frustrated that chicken products will remain exempt from the labeling requirements, possibly leading to consumer confusion when labels start appearing on beef, pork and lamb products next year. And the organization remains concerned that consumers will continue to think the labels are supposed to address food safety issues.
Still, he noted that the compromise was viewed as a success, particularly in the current news climate.
“We think it made some significant improvements over the current law. Really, if we wanted to make any changes or improvements, the clock was ticking, and this was one of the final opportunities to do that.”