USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) is seeking comments by April 11 on a proposal to amend the mandatory country of origin labeling (mCOOL) requirements for muscle cut meats to provide consumers with more specific information and modify the definition for “retailer” to include any person subject to be licensed as a retailer under the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act, according to an AMS  statement issued this week.

This change would adopt the recommendations of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Appellate Body, which has given the United States until May 23 to make the mCOOL requirements consistent with U.S. multilateral obligations.

The proposed rule changes from AMS come after a WTO appellate panel found last June that the U.S. meat-labeling law discriminated against imported livestock from Canada and Mexico.  Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement that “USDA expects that these changes will improve the overall operation of the program and also bring the current mandatory mCOOL requirements into compliance with U.S. international trade obligations.”

For all domestic animals, the label would change from “Product of the U.S.” to “Born, Raised, and Slaughtered in the U.S.” According to the summary of the proposed rule change, 3,038 livestock packing and processing facilities and 30,156 supermarkets and warehouse clubs are affected by the change, as well as 156 chicken-processing plants. The White House Office of Management and Budget stated it will cost those facilities an estimated $32.8 million to implement the changes.

The 2008 Farm Bill revised previous mCOOL requirements to provide that, in order for a commodity to be labeled as a product of the United States, all production activities associated with the commodity have to occur on U.S. soil or in U.S. waters. For products produced in the integrated North American marketplace, the label must indicate every country in which a stage of production has taken place. The 2008 Farm Bill also imposed mCOOL requirements for muscle cuts of beef (including veal), lamb, chicken, goat and pork;  ground beef, lamb, chicken, goat, and pork; wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish; perishable agricultural commodities; macadamia nuts; pecans; ginseng; and peanuts.

The mCOOL regulations require any person engaged in the business of supplying a covered commodity to a retailer to provide the retailer with the product’s country of origin information. The rule also sets forth the requirements for consumer notification and product marking as well as the recordkeeping responsibilities of both retailers and suppliers. In addition, the proposed rule would eliminate the allowance for any commingling of muscle cuts for the covered commodities of different origins. The Federal Register notice is available here.

An AMS official involved in the mCOOL program confirmed to the National Chicken Council that, for muscle meats with respect to whole chicken and parts, the phrase “born, raised, slaughtered (or harvested) in the United States” is to be used. If an alternative phrase would be preferred, such as “hatched, raised, and harvested in the United States,” comments should be filed requesting such a phrase. “Processed” instead of “slaughtered” or “harvested” will probably not be permitted. Ground chicken, like other ground meats, can continue to be labeled “product of USA” or simply “USA”.

NCC’s legal counsel has prepared a memorandum on the proposed rule.  The memorandum can be viewed here.