Meatpackers, industry groups seek repeal of labeling law

U.S. meat industry groups and packers have stepped up efforts to seek repeal of a law that requires products to have a country-of-origin label, citing increased costs and conflicts with trade partners now that the Farm Bill passed by the House of Representatives keeps the requirement known as COOL in place.

The American Meat Institute, National Cattleman’s Beef Association, National Chicken Council, National Pork Producers Council, National Turkey Federation and North American Meat Association, as well as big meatpackers, lobbied to have the new Farm Bill change the country-of-origin labeling law.

But the bill passed by the House on Wednesday included the provision.

The legislation is now headed to the Senate, where a vote could come as early as Monday.

“We had asked for a fix. Now, because that is not in the farm bill, we’re going to ask for a full repeal,” Dave Warner, spokesman for the National Pork Council, said.

The industry has complained that COOL forces it to keep livestock and meat separated throughout the entire food processing chain, adding to costs.

Canada and Mexico are concerned that U.S. meatpackers will stop sourcing livestock from outside the United States. Additionally, both countries have complained to the World Trade Organization about the U.S. labeling law, saying it discriminates against their animals and products.

Tyson Foods, the largest U.S. meat processor, stopped buying slaughter-ready Canadian cattle in October 2013 due to increased costs associated with COOL labeling.

“This law has increased costs by requiring additional product codes, production breaks and product segregation without providing any additional value to our customers,” Gary Mickelson, spokesman for Tyson Foods, said.

Senate Agriculture Committee chairwoman Debbie Stabenow has said that if the WTO finds the COOL law illegal, it will be suspended, changed or repealed. The WTO dispute hearing is scheduled for Feb. 18.

COOL backers, including consumer groups and ranchers, say consumers have a right to know where their meat comes from.

The U.S. meat industry groups also fear retaliation, in the form of tariffs and other trade blocks from Canada and Mexico, Warner said.

U.S. agribusiness giant Cargill Inc. said the labeling law has resulted in significant costs to the American meat sector with no evidence of benefit.

“The prospect of $2 billion in retaliatory tariffs from America’s NAFTA partners to the north and south, we believe Congress should revisit this issue,” said Michael Martin, Cargill spokesman, referring to WTO compliance.