Lawmakers Broker COOL Compromise

WASHINGTON -- After a week of what was described as an "intense behind-the-scenes battle," members of the House Agriculture Committee at presstime struck a compromise and approved changes to a new Farm Bill, a key provision of which evidently clears the way for mandatory country of origin labels for meat products to begin next year.

After days of negotiations, the committee agreed to move forward with mandatory labeling legislation, but to soften penalties and burdensome record-keeping requirements that had concerned many food retailers and meatpackers who were opposed the law. The COOL provision has emerged as one of the most controversial parts of the new Farm Bill.

The committee adopted by voice vote the labeling changes, just prior to approving other provisions of a new five-year Farm Bill.

Another key highlight of the Farm Bill increases spending for food safety by the Agriculture Department, which oversees inspection of meat and poultry, among other food and nutrition programs. The compromise agreement only applies to meat products, but could also pertain to far less controversial fruits, vegetables and peanuts.

In approving language for the implementation of mandatory COOL labels for beef, pork and lamb, the House Ag Committee’s three categories of meat labeling will include a “Product of the U.S.” label for meat from animals born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S.; a “Mixed Product” label for meat from foreign-born animals raised or slaughtered in the U.S. (i.e., “product of Mexico and the U.S.”), as well as for products such as ground beef listing countries where the beef might have originated (i.e., “Product may contain beef from U.S., Australia, Canada, Brazil, etc.”); and a third label for meat born, raised, and slaughtered in countries other than the U.S., which would identify it as the product of a foreign country.

The House and Senate Appropriations Committees both established benchmarks within their fiscal 2008 ag funding bills to help the USDA implement country-of-origin labeling by Sept. 30, 2008, when it is required by law to be in place.

In explaining the House Agriculture Committee’s three new COOL labeling categories, Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said the deal “takes out the huge penalties” stipulated in the original 2002 COOL guidelines, streamlines paperwork, and “deals with the liability issue.” Under the new agreement, producers could self-certify the origin of their animals and would not have to have “birth certificates.”

Specifics relating to the softened penalties and less burdensome record-keeping requirement still remained unclear at presstime, “pending release of the actual agreement that was reached by the House Agriculture Committee,” said Bill Greer, spokesman for the Food Marketing Institute, which has opposed mandatory country of origin labeling requirements.

Fearful that the higher costs associated with mandatory meat labeling will be passed on to retailers, producers, and ultimately to consumers, other longtime COOL opponents include the American Meat Institute, the National Pork Producers Council, and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

“Our top priority from the beginning has been that the benefits of COOL must outweigh the costs for cattle producers,” said Jay Truitt, NCBA’s v.p./government affairs, noting that the compromise eases cattlemen’s concerns about the burdens of record keeping for COOL.

However, NCBA remains opposed to the fact that poultry is still completely exempt from all requirements imposed on other fresh protein products, as well as perceived misconceptions that the COOL law will address food safety issues, as opposed to a marketing issue that will give consumers ample information to make an educated choice.
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