Vilsack wants stricter COOL rules

WASHINGTON -- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Feb. 17 that he is asking the nation's meatpackers to voluntarily impose a stricter regime of country-of-origin labeling for meat than the Bush administration wrote in the rule it published bef...

WASHINGTON -- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Feb. 17 that he is asking the nation's meatpackers to voluntarily impose a stricter regime of country-of-origin labeling for meat than the Bush administration wrote in the rule it published before leaving office to implement the mandatory labeling provision in the 2008 farm bill.

If meatpackers do not comply, Vilsack said, he will reopen the rulemaking process.

But at press time, Vilsack had not sent meatpackers a letter detailing his demands, prompting rumors that he might have run into opposition within the administration or with the government of Canada, where President Obama visited Feb. 19.

Vilsack said the announcement was made in preparation for President Obama's trip to Canada. Canadian Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, who was traveling in the Middle East, said if the Obama administration stiffens the labeling program for meat the Canadian government may revive a World Trade Organization case against the program, Bloomberg reported. Canadians claim that they are losing business or getting lower prices for their cattle because American meatpackers do not like to segregate their production lines.



In an interview, Vilsack said he expected Obama to be asked about meat labeling and that the United States would not be a "good friend" if he were to say nothing about the labeling issue and then impose a stricter regime at a later date. Vilsack also said any decisions about the trade implications of the labeling program would be made by President Obama himself.

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative "could come to the president and say this law is creating issues," Vilsack said, "but the president will decide whether to propose changes." Vilsack also said is "My job is simply to follow the law . . . not to make trade policy."

Vilsack said he was aware that the Bush administration held talks with the Canadians before issuing their rule, but he added, "My job is simply to follow the law. My job is not to make trade policy."

Vilsack, who is a lawyer, said it is his interpretation of the law is that Congress thinks "American consumers need to know and should know when something is an all-American product" and that the Bush rule did not carry out the law. Vilsack said he did not initiate a new round of rulemaking, as some farm groups and members of Congress had suggested, because he did not want "a vacuum that would be created by the process.'

But Vilsack also said he may make his suggested voluntary regime mandatory at some point in the future.

Bush rule

The Bush administration rule is scheduled to take effect March 16, which made it fall within the group of rules that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel announced the Obama administration would review.

In making the decision to ask the industry to cooperate, Vilsack appeared to be following the lead of House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., who has said he expects the industry to label most meat from animals born, raised and slaughtered in the United States as coming from the United States rather than continue to use labels that say the meat may be from the United States, Canada or Mexico. The National Farmers Union and some members of Congress had asked Vilsack to rewrite the rule to require stricter labeling.


Under the Bush rule, meatpackers have been labeling a lot of meat of U.S. origin as of mixed origin, but Vilsack said he will ask the meatpackers to label each meat package so that the consumer can read the country in which the animal was born, the country in which it was raised and the country in which it was slaughtered.

"Substantially altered" foods are exempt from the law, but Vilsack said Feb. 19 that the Bush rule gave processors too much latitude in deciding that. Vilsack said a chicken that has been roasted has not been substantially altered and must be labeled. He said he would also reject an argument from the Canadian Cattlemen's Association that beef cattle could be exported to the United States and slaughtered the next day and that the slaughtering would constitute such a substantial change that a steak should be labeled as a U.S. product. Vilsack said he thinks the Canadian cattlemen are reading the law as they think it should have been written, not as it was written.

The Bush rule allows meat processors to comingle ground meat from plants in which meat from various countries had been processed within 60 days, but Vilsack said he also has asked the meat processors to reduce the number of days to 10.


Meatpacker lobbyists declined to comment on Vilsack's statements until they receive the letter, but Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, said that after Vilsack briefed pro-labeling groups by telephone she was "extremely pleased" with his plan. Halloran said Vilsack also would require that roasted peanuts, which the Bush administration exempted from labeling on the grounds that they were "substantially altered" and other products that were not altered very much would have to be labeled.

"We thought all along they were exempting way too many things," Halloran said.

National Farmers Union President Tom Buis, who had urge Vilsack to change the rule, said he would not comment until he sees the letter.

John Masswohl, director of international relations for the Canadian Cattlemen's Association said in a telephone interview that Vilsack's statements were "a big concern" because U.S. meatpackers are already rejecting Canadian cattle or paying a lower price for them on the grounds that labeling makes them too complicated to handle. Masswohl acknowledged that a Canadian regulation requires that if a country of origin label is used on meat the label has to state the origin of the animal and cannot say it is a product of Canada, but he said his group is opposed to the Canadian regulation.


Vilsack met with the meat industry Feb. 19 and said he would meet with labeling advocates and is calling members of Congress with an interest in the issue.

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