This time, the White House hopes they’ve finally gotten mandatory country-of-origin labeling (MCOOL) for retail beef and pork right.
The requirement had long been a goal of Northern Plains ranchers who thought they were being undercut by imports of Canadian feeder cattle, and was written into the 2002 Farm Bill. It remained on the shelf until it was rewritten in the ’08 bill in a way that satisfied both the ranchers and the packing industry.
But when Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wrote rules that urged meat sellers to place information on labels that wasn’t required by the law, the Canadian and Mexican governments complained to the World Trade Organization, and a dispute settlement panel ruled in 2011 that MCOOL was not WTO compliant.
Oklahoma State University Ag Economist Derrell Peel said he doesn’t know how the WTO will view the new proposal. Dr. Peel told Ozarks Farm & Neighbor, “When country-of-origin labeling was first proposed in the U.S.… the initial proposals at that time included very rigorous recordkeeping requirements on the part of both U.S. and foreign producers. As it’s implemented today, those recordkeeping requirements are much less stringent.” But Peel said he doesn’t think the industry will be able to comply with an MCOOL program unless the government mandates a livestock traceability system that will have those records built into it.
Peel  said although the Northern Plains ranchers felt consumers would select products identified as strictly U.S. origin, “the vast majority of consumers are unaware of the labels, they don’t seek out the labels, and they don’t make purchasing decisions very differently with the labels in place.”
But Peel said the expense required on both sides of the border makes the economic impact of the law a net negative, and his colleague, University of Missouri Agricultural Economist Ron Plain, agreed. Dr. Plain told OFN the revisions look even more burdensome. He explained, “The new rules call for each package of meat to say, in the case of beef and pork, where the animal was born, what country it was raised in and what country it was processed in. That last one’s obviously fairly easy for U.S. packers to handle, but it’s a more detailed label on meat packages than we’ve had, and it looks like it’s going to be a challenge for packers to comply.”
The WTO panel rejected the MCOOL rules in part because they placed requirements on industry that did not appear on the label, and therefore did not meet the goal of informing the public about where their meat comes from.
The Northern Plains producers arguing in favor of the legislation said other countries already require meat to be labeled with its country of origin. Plain said that’s true, but so did the U.S.; the difference is MCOOL also mandates information on where the animals were born and raised. He explained, “You may be wearing a shirt that has cotton in it that was grown in the United States, that was milled into cloth in China and then sewn into a shirt in the Philippines, and your shirt would be labeled, ‘Product of the Philippines,’ because that’s where it became a shirt. MCOOL’s data on the meat side of it is saying, ‘No, we don’t just want to know where the pork became pork – in essence, what packing plant processed it; we want to know the entire life history of the product.’ And that is different than other goods.”


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