July 15, 2003
Questions and Answers on Country-of-Origin Labeling
Prepared by the U.S. Department of Agriculture
Why can?t the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) use the same system to verify compliance with Country-of-Origin Labeling that it uses for meat products under the department?s commodity procurement program?
There are several reasons why the systems will be different.
The requirements for origin are not the same. The COOL law for U.S. origin requires the meat products to be from cattle, hogs and sheep born, raised and slaughtered in the United States. The USDA commodity procurement program requires meat products to come from U.S.-produced livestock. The definition of U.S.-produced livestock excludes only imported meat and meat from livestock imported for direct slaughter.
The system for verifying compliance with the USDA commodity procurement program is a ?command and control? type system. USDA, through various certification or audit programs, confirms the applicable claim at the beginning of the process, then tracks and controls the movement of the product throughout the rest of the marketing chain.
A similar system for COOL would require USDA to verify that the livestock was born in the United States, then track and control the movement of the livestock and resulting meat products through the marketing chain to retail. The law specifically precludes USDA from imposing this type of control. In fact, maintaining the identity of the livestock and resulting product is a key component of the system like this and is specifically precluded. The law states, ?The Secretary shall not use a mandatory identification system to verify the country of origin of a covered commodity.?
Why can?t USDA track only the imported products and all other products be considered of ?U.S. Origin??
The COOL provision of the Farm Bill applies to all covered commodities. Moreover, the law specifically identifies the criteria that products of U.S. origin must meet. For beef, pork and lamb, for example, U.S. origin can only be claimed if from animals that are born, raised and slaughtered in the United States. The law further states that ?Any person engaged in the business of supplying a covered commodity to a retailer shall provide information to the retailer indicating the country of origin of the covered commodity.? And, the law does not provide authority to control the movement of product, imported or domestic. In fact, the use of a mandatory identification system which would be required to track controlled product through the entire chain of commerce, is specifically prohibited.
In addition, applying rules only to imports could potentially violate the ?national treatment? requirements of existing trade agreements between the United States and various other countries.
Are cattle, hogs and sheep covered commodities?
No. However, the law requires suppliers to provide country of origin information to retailers, including the ?born, raised and slaughtered? information required to make U.S. origin claims for the covered commodities beef, pork and lamb. The records needed to substantiate this information can only be created by persons having first-hand knowledge of the country designation for each production step declared in the country of origin claim. Thus, livestock producers will need to create these records to enable retail suppliers to provide retailers with correct country-of-origin information.
Doesn?t the finding of BSE in Canada make the need for Country-of-Origin Labeling more imperative?
No. COOL will encompass products that have already been determined to be safe and appropriate for human consumption. There are other existing USDA programs responsible for food safety and animal disease that preclude noncompliant products from being included in the marketplace. The purpose of COOL is to provide consumers with country of origin information; it is not intended to be a food safety measure. Because COOL only covers certain commodities sold at certain retail establishments, it does not provide the type of universal assurance of food safety that consumers have a right to expect.
In light of the discovery of BSE in Canada, shouldn?t mandatory Country-of-Origin Labeling be implemented immediately?
To the extent that consumers begin to demand COOL, the guidelines for voluntary country-of-origin labeling currently in place already address this issue. The law provides that regulations governing mandatory country of origin labeling shall be issued not later than Sept. 30, 2004.