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USDA Meat-Labeling Rules Raise Concerns Among Cattle Interests

USDA Meat-Labeling Rules Raise Concerns Among Cattle Interests

Barry Shlachter | Fort Worth Star Telegram

Texas cattle interests are watching who will blink first — the beef industry or the Obama administration, which is asking that packers and retailers go beyond meat-label rules that take effect March 16 and voluntarily spell out the countries where a steer was born, raised and slaughtered.

If they don’t go along, Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack warned in a Feb. 20 letter that he might decide that the rules for multiple countries of origin be modified, a lengthy process that critics say could disrupt the market.

The beef industry is worried because the new country-of-origin labeling guidelines, known as COOL, took six years to hammer out.

Buyers of Mexican and Canadian cattle are particularly upset about the request.

“We recently met with our Mexican counterparts, and they are threatening to have the border locked down,” said Jason Skaggs, an Austin official with the Fort Worth-based Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.

He said many of his members import Mexican steers, whose prices have already been discounted and might get hurt further by Vilsack’s request.

Mexico is the state’s biggest trading partner and bought $1.4 billion worth of U.S. beef products last year, Skaggs said.

What’s proposed

Vilsack said consumers would be better served with a ground-beef label that reads “Born and Raised in Mexico and Slaughtered in the United States” than merely stating “Product of Mexico and United States,” as the new rule will require.

Starting March 16, labels for production runs of ground beef will carry a country’s name for 60 days after that nation’s meat is no longer present. Vilsack wants grinders to voluntarily reduce that period to 10 days.

If they did, processors would have to close down production, clean machines, then start up again, adding to costs, the industry says.

Those who have opposed imports applauded Vilsack’s move, saying Congress intended for the labels to be clearer for consumers.

“We are extremely pleased that Secretary Vilsack recognizes that the final COOL rule does not meet the intent [of] Congress,” said Bill Bullard, chief executive of R-CALF, a Montana-based cattle group.

Cattlemen concerns

Both Canada and Mexico have expressed reservations with the mandatory rules, and Mexico demanded consultations today in Washington on the belief that the labeling might violate international trade agreements.