A COOL debate

Lawsuit fuels arguments over country-of-origin labeling law

Photo by Caryn Green

Although 95 percent of consumers agree that country-of-origin labeling for products should always be available at point of purchase on products, meat processors and producers and members of the World Trade Organization are pushing back against a law that requires them to label where meat comes from, saying it is logistically difficult and expensive.


Melonhead LLC, operator of Boulder-based Mile High Organics, has joined the Made in the USA Foundation and the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund in a lawsuit against the World Trade Organization, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and the United States of America in response to pending changes to the current Country of Origin Labeling Act (COOL), according to a press release from Mile High Organics. The suit was filed after a summer ruling by the WTO found COOL to be discriminatory to Canadian, Mexican and other foreign beef products.

Mark Dopp, senior vice president of regulatory affairs and general counsel at the American Meat Institute, describes the law as unnecessary and very expensive to implement due to the new obligation of segregating the livestock.

“If you were processing cattle, for example, or meat from cattle, they will come in ready for slaughter in the United States or Canada or they will come down from a feed lot in Canada. You have to segregate all those animals or use the generic label that says ‘Product of the U.S. and Canada,’” Dopp says. “That means that only cattle born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S. can have the USA label. You have to segregate them in the pens, you have to separate the carcasses and you have to separate the product.”

The American Meat Institute represents companies that process 95 percent of red meat and 70 percent of turkey in the U.S. and their suppliers throughout the U.S., according to its website.

Since March 16, 2009, COOL has required retailers such as grocery stores, supermarkets and club warehouse stores to notify customers about the source of foods such as beef, pork and chicken, according to the Agricultural Marketing Service.

Michael Joseph, CEO of Mile High Organics, says he is focusing on how the law impacts consumers. Mile High Organics’ business model focuses primarily on what it feels its consumers deserve in regards to information about the food they buy.

“We just want consumers to have more information and don’t believe that really important things that go behind the decision-making should be hidden. Period,” Joseph says. “The extension that we do of that is that we take that to a much deeper level and give as much detail as possible. Never force it in somebody’s face, but you make it available there so that they can make the best decision.”

COOL requires meats to be labeled with whichever country the livestock was born, raised and slaughtered in. This gives consumers the option of choosing whether they want to buy meat domestically or from whichever country they feel produces the best meat.

Meat that is not exclusively raised and produced in one country receives a mixed label under the law. For example, livestock born and raised in Canada and slaughtered in the United States receive a mixed country of origin label that lists both Canada and the United States.

Officials in Canada, Mexico and Peru argue that this rule violates parts of the WTO agreement. Article 2.1 of the agreement states that for a violation to occur, it will involve any “law, regulation, or requirement affecting a country’s internal sale, offering for sale, purchase, transportation, distribution or use and that the imported products are accorded ‘less favorable’ treatment than that accorded to like domestic products.”

The other plaintiffs involved in the lawsuit, the Made in the USA Foundation and the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund (R-CALF), are major proponents of providing proper distinction among meat products to better inform consumers and emphasize the quality of meat made in the U.S.

Bill Bullard, CEO of Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, says that “the definition of a U.S.A. meat product is a meat product derived from animals that are exclusively born, raised and slaughtered in the United States, and that’s a key component of animal country of origin law.”

He goes on to say that “if consumers cannot distinguish between an imported product and a domestic product, then they cannot exercise choice based on where they want their food produced.”

The WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body created a panel of third party countries such as China, India, Japan, Korea and New Zealand to evaluate the potential violations to the WTO agreement. A panel report released Nov. 18 stated that the COOL measure violates Article 2.1 of the WTO agreement by treating Canadian cattle and hogs less favorably than domestic cattle and hogs, according a summary of the dispute on the WTO’s website.

An analysis by the International Agricultural Trade and Policy Center suggests that instead of requiring labels of origin for all meat products, the law can be modified so that all products are presumed to be of U.S. origin unless the label indicates that it is from another country.

According to Joseph, the main purpose of the law is “to just inform people that things are coming from different countries, which means there are different environmental laws and there are different social laws, and so what could have happened is that the product could be much different depending on where it comes from.”

The analysis also acknowledged the importance of providing information for consumers. The report states that “at a fundamental level, our society values information and choice for consumers. Markets cannot operate properly unless information valued by the purchaser is available. Similarly, without meaningful choice, consumers are unable to express their preferences.”

Consumers have shown a great deal of support for labeling laws, especially in regards to where their food comes from. A poll conducted in 2007 by Food and Water Watch revealed that 82 percent of consumers support mandatory country of origin labeling of food. A similar survey conducted in 2008 by the Consumer Reports National Research Center shows that 95 percent of consumers agree that country-of-origin labeling for products should always be available at point of purchase.

On Aug. 21, the U.S. notified the Dispute Settlement Body that it intended to implement the recommendations of the panel in order to comply with WTO obligations, but would need a reasonable time to do so. It is unclear at this point exactly what amendments the U.S. intends to make to the Country of Origin Labeling Act.

“If the U.S. decides to make some fixes, it can be done through the regulatory process rather than having to go through Congress to make a new law,” says Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America. “This is something consumers want, this is something consumers see value in and should be something we should provide them.”

There is no clear solution for satisfying the requests of the plaintiffs in this case as well as addressing possible violations to WTO agreements. The United States and the WTO have yet to respond to the complaint, but are expected to do so by the end of this year.

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