Consumers may soon know more about where their meat comes from because of a long-debated change made by the US Department of Agriculture on Thursday.
The USDA released its final rule modifying what’s called “Country of Origin Labeling,” or COOL, provisions for muscle-cut meats. The amended COOL rule will require processors, packers and retailers to include more information on labels of beef, pork, lamb, chicken and goat meat, specifically where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered. Currently labels only require companies to include the countries that the meat passed through.
For example, a label will now read “Born, Raised, and Slaughtered in the United States,” “Born in Mexico, Raised and Slaughtered in the United States” or “Born and Raised in Canada, Slaughtered in the United States.” Labels for imported meat which already read, for instance, “Product of Argentina,” will not be changed by this rule.
Whether consumers will see new labels on their meat any time soon remains to be seen. Although the amended COOL rule goes into effect on Thursday, the USDA is working with companies for six months to implement the changes. Companies can use current labels dated prior to May 23, 2013 until they run out, as long as "retailers provide the more specific information via other means," like signs in the stores.
The modified rule also prevents packers and retailers from commingling cuts of meat from animals from different origins, a practice critics say makes it more difficult to trace contaminated products. It also addresses an earlier World Trade Organization decision that found current COOL requirements discriminated against livestock imported from Canada and Mexico and violated WTO rules.
“USDA remains confident that these changes will improve the overall operation of the program and also bring the mandatory COOL requirements into compliance with U.S. international trade obligations,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a press release.
The USDA estimates that 2,808 livestock processing and slaughtering firms, 38 chicken processing firms and 4,335 retailers will need to change their labels based on this amended rule, which could cost up to $192.1 million.
“We are deeply disappointed with this short-sighted action by the USDA,” said Scott George, the president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, in a statement. “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 ... Moreover, this rule will place a greater record-keeping burden on producers, feeders and processors through the born, raised and harvested label.”
But the National Farmers Union, which represents smaller farmers and ranchers across the country, supports the USDA’s move.
“The decision to bring the law into compliance with the WTO’s ruling is a win-win situation for all interested parties. We further applaud the administration for deciding to take a proactive approach in bringing COOL into compliance by providing more information on the origins of our food, instead of simply watering down the process,” said NFU President Roger Johnson.
Consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch applauded the change and said the new rule will significantly improve the disclosure of information to consumers.
“The final rule eliminates the vague and misleading ‘mixed origin’ country of origin label for meat and ensures that each cut of meat clearly displays each stage of production (where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered) on the label. This commonsense approach improves the usefulness of the information consumers receive from the label and allows livestock producers to distinguish their products in the marketplace,” Wenonah Hauter, Food & Water Watch’s executive director, said in a statement.