This week AMI joined the American Association of Meat Processors, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, Canadian Pork Council, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Pork Producers Council, North American Meat Association and Southwest Meat Association in a lawsuit against USDA challenging the recent Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) rule finalized by the agency in 2013. A good timeline of the issue is included in a presentation provided to the media during the announcement of the lawsuit, but a short synopsis shows that COOL dates back to 2002 when it was part of that year’s Farm Bill. Since then, COOL has been proposed and published by USDA in a few different forms, was challenged by Canada and Mexico to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and then redone after the WTO agreed with Canada and Mexico’s challenges. The current version was published this May and may be the most burdensome, costly version yet.
AMI and our industry partners both in the U.S. and Canada agreed that the current COOL rule has the potential to be so damaging to the industry that a lawsuit is necessary to stop it. The legal arguments against the rule boil down to three points:
- It violates the first amendment protection from compelled speech: The government may only compel speech when there is a substantial government interest such as food safety or public health protection. USDA has repeatedly stated that COOL is not a food safety labeling issue. Consumer curiosity is not a substantial government interest.
- It violates the statute: The COOL statute passed by Congress mandates origin labels but does not permit that countries where production steps occurred be listed.
- It violates the Administrative Procedure Act (APA): The rule will provide inaccurate information to consumers, harm the industry and doesn’t address concerns expressed by the WTO or by Canada and Mexico. It ultimately picks winners and losers in the market, fundamentally altering the meat industry with no identifiable consumer benefit.
What about Safety?
In reading through reactions to the lawsuit online from critics, one common theme has emerged: that the labels would help people make safe choices by knowing where their food comes from. At AMI food safety is our number one priority, but COOL doesn’t offer any food safety information to consumers.
USDA has made it very clear that COOL is not a food safety program, writing in 2009, “The COOL program is not a food safety program” and “COOL is a retail labeling program and as such does not provide a basis for addressing food safety.”
The current opening paragraph of USDA’s own Q&A on COOL states: “The Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) program is neither a food safety or traceability program but rather a consumer information program. Food products, both imported and domestic, must meet the food safety standards of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Food safety and traceability are not the stated intent of the rule, and the COOL program does not replace any other established regulatory programs that related to food safety or traceability.”
In other words, whether an animal is born in Montana, Manitoba, or Mazatlán, they are subject to the same food safety standards. A look at meat safety in the U.S. shows that meat and poultry companies produce 90 billion pounds of meat and poultry products a year and 99.99 percent of these are consumed safely. We can continue to improve food safety as well as tracking outbreaks when they occur, but as USDA says, COOL is not designed for that.
We respect that people have a desire to know where their food comes from, but any labels, whether on food or other products should serve to inform and not confuse consumers. Judging by the response we’ve seen on the issue, the labels as mandated by COOL only add confusion about meat and poultry products. At the same time, segregating and tracking animals according to the countries where production steps occurred only serves to raise the prices people pay, and will put some producers and meat and poultry companies out of business in the process. It’s a lose-lose situation, and that is why we believe COOL should be stopped.