Meat industry sues USDA over new COOL rules

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 136 views 

Fresh meat sold at U.S. grocery stores will soon have a label detailing where an animal was born, raised and slaughtered, with the labels costing an estimated $192 million a year, according to meat industry groups.

The more detailed Country-Of-Origin-Labels also mean that livestock will have to be tracked and segregated within country, and no commingling of animals that commonly moved in and out of neighboring Mexico and Canada.

The expanded COOL rules have drawn a heated reaction from the meat industry, prompting them to sue the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who finalized the rules in May.

Last week, eight organizations representing the U.S. and Canadian meat and livestock industries filed suit in federal court attempting to block the implementation of the mandatory (COOL) rules. Plaintiffs include the American Association of Meat Processors, American Meat Institute, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, Canadian Pork Council, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Pork Producers Council, North American Meat Association and the Southwest Meat Association.

The complaint said the rules compel speech in the form of costly and detailed labels and the regulation exceeds the scope of the mandate offering little or no benefit to the industry or consumers.

Steve Kay, publisher of Cattle Buyers Weekly, said the rules essentially work to undue a concerted 20-year effort to build a cohesive North American meat industry. He said young livestock commonly move across the national borders and is fed out in the United States. Those animals cannot be commingled under the new rules, which means retailers will likely limit their purchases to U.S. born, raised and slaughtered.

A Consumer Reports survey completed this spring found 78% of respondents said they prefer to buy items manufactured in the United States, most cited retaining manufacturing jobs and keeping American manufacturing strong in the global economy their reasons for buying American.

The American Meat Institute and other plaintiffs note in the compliant that all livestock and meat processed at federally inspected establishments in the U.S. and sold in interstate commerce are subject to the same health and safety requirements prescribed by the federal inspection statutes.

“Those products are also graded for quality according to a system administered by AMS (Agricultural Marketing Service) without variation based on where an animal was born or raised. In short, beef is beef, whether the steer or heifer was born in Montana, Manitoba, or Mazatlán. The same goes for hogs, chickens and other livestock,” the complaint notes.

Mark Dopp, AMI senior vice president of regulatory affairs, said in a recent webcast, “Shoes, may say ‘Made in the USA.’ They do not say ‘Leather from cattle born in Canada, harvested in the USA, tanned in South Korea and processed in the USA’, yet that is the sort of labeling that we are now being forced to apply.”

Retail organizations said the cost of segregating, tracking and labeling meat according to these complex new rules will force them to reject meat sourced from Canada or Mexico and stock only meat with the designation “Born, Raised, and Slaughtered in the United States.”

The complaint notes new labels will need to be larger, and many grocers will have to acquire new weighing and labeling machines to handle the complex sorting of packages for each possible label.

“Segregating and tracking animals according to the countries where production steps occurred and detailing that information on a label may be a bureaucrat’s paperwork fantasy, but the labels that result will serve only to confuse consumers, raise the prices they pay and put some producers and meat and poultry companies out of business in the process. Everyone loses under this rule,” Dopp said.

Processed food such as bacon, or marinated chicken or pork loin are exempt from the COOL requirement, so not all of the meat in the grocer case will bear the larger label.

Dopp said the rule is egregious and will create winners and losers in the meat industry based on geographic location near national borders and those who have the ability to further process and bypass the rule. The plaintiffs have asked the court for an injunction that would repeal implementation, which was supposed to begin July 1.

Kay said retailers are technically out of compliance with the law but are likely hesitant to invest in new labeling equipment until after the court has ruled.