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USDA issues final rule for country-of-origin label rule

Tim Hearden, Capital Press 1/12/09

The final rule for country-of-origin labeling was issued today, bringing a sigh of relief - if not exuberant elation - within the commercial cattle industry.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released details of the final document that outlines mandatory labeling regulations required under the 2002 and 2008 farm bills.

The rule, which will be published Thursday in the Federal Register and take effect March 16, covers muscle cuts and ground beef, lamb, chicken, goat and pork as well as wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish, perishable commodities such as fruits and vegetables, and nuts.

Commodities covered under COOL will have to be labeled in retail to indicate its country of origin, and for fish and shellfish, the method of production - either wild or farm-raised - will need to be specified, according to a USDA news release.

The final rule's release pleases the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said Heather Vaughan, the organization's Washington, D.C.-based spokeswoman.

"Uncertainty is not good for the market and it doesn't do anything for beef demand, so having a final rule in place was something we've pushed for," Vaughan said. "Now we can evaluate its six-month implementation period.... The other thing it does is allow people to really devote resources to implementing this and educating consumers, producers and retailers on what needs to be done to comply with the rule."

The NCBA had been active in negotiating the details of the labeling law, whose aim is to promote domestic livestock. While organization officials haven't yet fully examined the 260-page final document, it appears to provide more clarity in labeling requirements and make it easier for producers to comply, Vaughan said.

"When this was originally passed in the 2002 Farm Bill it was going to be really impossible for the beef industry to implement, so what we did was worked to make sure it was feasible to implement," she said. "While we weren't thrilled by what was essentially a mandatory marketing program, we were pleased that the beef industry could implement this without it being exorbitantly expensive."

One big concession that producers won is the ability to use everyday business documents such as import papers and sales receipts to verify the origin of animals, they said.

"Originally there was going to be a whole new set of paperwork," said Dave Warner, communications director for the National Pork Producers Council.

The pork producers' group had originally opposed COOL and worked to have its implementation delayed, then tried to get more flexibility in labeling, Warner said. For instance, pigs born in Canada but slaughtered in the United States can be labeled as being from the U.S. and Canada.

Despite the added flexibility, however, the labeling law has been estimated to cost the livestock industry $2.5 billion initially and nearly $212 million annually over the next 10 years, the pork producers' council asserts in a news release. The group already has received reports that producers have faced higher transportation costs because some packing plants will process only U.S.-origin pigs, the release states.

"We're pleased with the changes that we got in the 2008 Farm Bill that make the law a little more flexible for pork producers," Warner said. "We still believe overall it's going to be costly and potentially hard to implement, at least at the packer level. If their costs go up, that's money they might not be able to pay a producer for their hogs."

The USDA plans to make funding available to provide training, develop an automated review tracking system, survey retailers, audit the retail supply chain and keep doing education and outreach, according to its news release

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