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WASHINGTON – New meat labeling rules designed to bring the United States up to World Trade Organization (WTO) standards take effect this weekend over the pitched protests of many of the nation’s beef, pork and poultry processors.
Minnesota-based Cargill and Hormel are major players in a fight to change the rules that will require labels to specify where animals used in meat products were born, raised and slaughtered.
Both companies, as well as Golden Valley-based General Mills, signed an Oct. 29 letter asking members of the Senate and House farm bill conference committee to amend “country of origin labeling” requirements, known as COOL. The letter said COOL “could result in widespread disruption” in agriculture and the economy.
“Our company supports the views held by industry organizations ... that the implementation of a mandatory country-of-origin labeling rule would confuse consumers, raise food prices, be costly to implement and serves no public health or food safety benefit,” said Hormel spokeswoman Becci Smith.
Cargill’s lobbyists have made much the same case to Congress, company spokesman Mike Martin said. “Cargill favors the repeal of country-of-origin labeling.”
The specific concern is that as of Nov. 23, U.S. meatpackers will no longer be able to list meat sources in a catch-all category without saying exactly where animals were born, raised and slaughtered. Right now, meatpackers use labels that say “product of Country X, Country Y and Country Z,” but not what role each country played.
Consumer advocates say the current complaint is just one more way the meat industry hopes to avoid any regulation that provides shoppers with facts that they should have.
“The industry has been opposed all along and looking for a way to undermine labeling,” said Christopher Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Insitute at the Consumer Federation of America. Among consumers, “there is a hunger for information about food. More specific information is better information.”
So far, farm bill conferees have not announced amendments to COOL as they negotiate higher-profile issues such as crop insurance and food-stamp cuts. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., one of four principals hammering out the farm bill, said last week that the conference committee would not be changing meat labeling rules.
Another conference committee member, fellow Minnesota Democrat Rep. Tim Walz, said he has heard from people on both sides on the COOL issue.
“Personally, I don’t support full repeal,” Walz said. “We haven’t held any hearings on the matter, and a full repeal wasn’t included in either the House or Senate farm bill. ”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said she would continue to work with the administration to help ensure that the rules are workable. “Consumers need reliable information about where their food comes from,” she said.
The House version of the farm bill requires a study of the economic effects of country-of-origin labeling.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said recently that the COOL controversy should be worked out with the WTO and not made part of the farm bill.
The issue will not go away anytime soon. Cargill and Hormel have seats on the executive committee of the American Meat Institute, the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit to overturn the new labeling rules.
The suit calls the rules a cumbersome, expensive violation of free speech that could force other countries to place tariffs on U.S. products. A three-judge appeals court panel is scheduled to hear arguments in January by the meat industry that the rules should be suspended while the case on their merits continues.
“Members of the meat and livestock industry are being forced to make difficult decisions,” said meat institute president and CEO Patrick Boyle. “Some companies are changing their procurement practices and not purchasing livestock from certain countries,”
Labeling divides agricultural communities across the country, including Minnesota.
“About 50 percent of all meat consumed in this country is hamburger,” said Minnesota Farmers Union president Doug Peterson. “I want to know where it comes from.”
On his ranch in Pierz, Minn., Dar Giess, president of the Minnesota State Cattlemen’s Association, says source labeling sounds good in theory, but may not be great in fact. “It just adds another cost,” he said. “At some point, consumers will push back.”
Giess says he has talked to Canadian ranchers who say their country will slap tariffs on U.S. meat if the labeling rules reduce Canadian exports.
The consumer federation’s Waldrop calls such threats “scare tactics.” Tariffs cannot be imposed without hearings by and approval of the WTO, he said.
The current controversy came about because the WTO said that catch-all labels do not comply with its labeling rules. This prompted the U.S. Agriculture Department to announce a new rule in May that requires labels to say in which country animals were born, in which they were raised and in which they were slaughtered.
Ironically, the WTO decision on catch-all labels came after protests by Mexico and Canada that catch-all labeling put them at a competitive disadvantage. Now, both countries have protested the new rule, saying it puts them at an even greater competitive disadvantage. The WTO is scheduled to hold a hearing on the most recent protest in mid-February.