The COOL Rule: Does COOL Labeling Provide Safety Information to the Consumer?

July 1, 2015 - 11 minutes read

Establishing the safety of a food[1] is essential for the food manufacturer when working to provide a safe product to the consumer. The United States federal government has laws and regulations that address the production or processing of food. However, not all United States food regulations promulgated by the federal government have a meaningful effect on consumers, especially from a safety standpoint.

One such regulation is under the regulatory authority of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The U.S. Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) rule[2] requires supply-chain labeling on select commodities. This information, printed on the label of certain food products (e.g., beef, pork, chicken, lamb, goat, seafood, perishable agricultural commodities, ginseng, peanuts, pecans, and macadamia nuts), is intended to supply the end-user with information about the product they are purchasing. Advocates of the COOL rule suggest that country of origin information on a meat label can provide consumers information on the quality and potential safety of the product they purchase.[3]

 

The requirement for COOL in the U.S. was first established with the 2002 Farm Bill Amendment to the Agriculture Marketing Act of 1946.[4] The 2002 bill, which became effective April 4, 2005, initially covered wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish. Implementation of COOL for the remaining commodities (i.e., meat and agricultural products) was clarified in the 2008 Farm Bill, with the interim final rule published in the second half of 2008 and the final rule published on January 15, 2009.[5]

Soon after the publication of the interim rule for the remaining commodities (specifically beef and pork), Canada requested a meeting with the United States to discuss specific details of the rule which they claimed were inconsistent with the U.S. obligations under World Trade Organization (WTO) agreements. The WTO ultimately formed a panel to evaluate the dispute between the US and Canada (who was later joined by Mexico).

 

Based on a WTO finding that the COOL requirements for muscle cuts of beef and pork were not consistent with US obligations under the Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) Agreement, the United States updated and issued an amended final COOL rule on May 23, 2013.3

 

In October 2014, the WTO ruled that the United States was violating treaty obligations based on the updated COOL rule. The United States filed an appeal with the WTO and, in May 2015, the WTO made a final ruling that, while COOL was updated in an attempt to come more in line with WTO policy, the COOL rules set out by the United States are unfair with regard to beef and pork muscle cuts that originate in either Mexico or Canada.[6] Per the 2013 amended U.S. rule, COOL requirements call for the product label to indicate where a source animal was born, raised, and slaughtered (similar to the European Union COOL requirements[7]). WTO claims that this places meats from Mexico and Canada at a disadvantage.  Meats from these countries have the potential to be sold under market value, according to packers, because the labels add additional costs to the products due to both the need to segregate foreign-born livestock (even before slaughter) and the additional record keeping that is required to comply with the COOL rule.

 

On June 10, 2015, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 2393, which repeals the COOL requirement for beef, pork, and poultry.[8] Currently, the resolution has now advanced to the Senate for debate. This effort to repeal these labeling requirements addresses the WTO ruling and ameliorates the threat of retaliatory sanctions by both Canada and Mexico.[9]

 

The underlying question is: does COOL information provided any benefit for consumers? That will depend on what group does the talking. Some meat packers/processors argue that the rule imposes unnecessary costs on their industry, whereas supporters of the rule, including some U.S. beef ranchers and consumer groups, suggest that the information on the labels will help consumers make informed decisions.[10],[11] There are no exact details on how informed decisions can benefit a consumer, especially from a safety standpoint. Some proponents of the rule suggest that a case of animal illness (e.g., bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as “mad cow disease”) would be reason to continue using country of origin labeling under the idea of food safety.[12] However, according to the original, October 30, 2003, publication of the proposed COOL rule in the Federal Register (7 CFR Part 60), “(t)he intent of this law is to provide consumers with additional information on which to base their purchasing decisions. It is not a food safety or animal health measure. COOL is a retail labeling program and as such does not address food safety or animal health concerns (emphasis added).”[13] The USDA reinforces this fact by stating that the COOL “program is neither a food safety or traceability program but rather a consumer information program.”[14]  While advocates may suggest that the COOL rule is necessary as a food safety measure[15], the original intent of the rule indicates that COOL label information is for information purposes only. Further, there is no need for COOL information to be used in place of safety information; the USDA already has rules in place on meat products imported into the US from other countries to confirm that the meat inspection processes are equivalent to those followed in the US to ensure a safe product.[16]

 

The WTO ruling that the United States violated the TBT Agreement focused only on how the COOL rule could negatively impact the economies of Canada and Mexico. The supposed safety aspect of the COOL rule, suggested by some advocates, was not addressed by the WTO. To further illustrate that the COOL rule is more of an economic issue than a safety one, Canada and Mexico have threated monetary sanctions (to the combined estimated annual amount of $3.7 billion dollars[17]) if the United States does not repeal the COOL requirements for beef and pork.

 

When consumers inspect labels in a supermarket, they would most likely want to know that a food is safe rather than knowing it was imported from another country (i.e., foreign-born meat).  At the end of the day, while COOL labeling worked in theory, the outcome does little to promote a safer food supply and may eventually result in higher costs to consumers.

 

References

[1] Safety-in-use of a food, as in a food ingredient.

[2] USDA. “Country of Origin Labeling.” Last Modified Date: 6/1/2015. http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/COOL

[3] Food Safety News. “Meat Industry Loses Attempt to Block Country-of-Origin Labeling.” March 28, 2014. http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2014/03/meat-industry-fails-at-attempt-to-block-country-of-origin-labeling/

[4] USDA. “Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) Frequently Asked Questions.” January 12, 2009. http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC5074846

[5] USDA. 7 CFR Parts 60 and 65. Federal Register Vol. 78 No. 101. Friday, May 24, 2013.  http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2013-05-24/pdf/2013-12366.pdf

[6] World Trade Organization (WTO). “United States – Certain Country of Origin Labelling (COOL) Requirements.” https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/dispu_e/cases_e/ds384_e.htm

[7] European Commission. “Food Information to Consumers – Legislation.” Last Modified Date: 1/7/2015. http://ec.europa.eu/food/food/labellingnutrition/foodlabelling/index_en.htm

[8] House Committee on Agriculture. “House passes bill to repeal mandatory COOL for beef, pork and chicken.” June 10, 2015. http://agriculture.house.gov/press-release/house-passes-bill-repeal-mandatory-cool-beef-pork-and-chicken

[9] BBC News. “Mexico and Canada seek $3bn in US sanctions over meat.” June 5, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/business-33028907

[10] Gee, Kelsey. Wall Street Journal. “U.S. Meatpackers Fight New Country-of-Origin Labels.” November 18, 2013. http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702303755504579206112678746726

[11] Bradner, Eric. POLITICO. “Meat packers fight country-of-origin labels.” August 26, 2013. http://www.politico.com/story/2013/08/meat-packers-fight-country-of-origin-labels-95918.html

[12] Food Safety News. “Canadian BSE Case Demonstrates Need for COOL, Lobby Group Says.” February 27, 2015. http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2015/02/canadian-bse-case-demonstrates-need-for-cool-lobby-group-says/#.VZqP1kYsDGA

[13] USDA. 7 CFR Part 60. “Mandatory Country of Origin Labeling of Beef, Lamb, Pork, Fish, Perishable Agricultural Commodities, and Peanuts; Proposed Rule.” October 30, 2003.  http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELDEV3103357

[14] USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). “Country of Origin Labeling for Meat and Chicken.” Last Modified Date August 21, 2013. http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/food-labeling/country-of-origin-labeling-for-meat-and-chicken/country-of-origin-labeling-for-meat-and-chicken

[15] Berning, Betty. Farm & Ranch Guide. “Repeal of Country of Origin Labeling – it’s messy.” June 24, 2015. http://www.farmandranchguide.com/news/livestock/repeal-of-country-of-origin-labeling-it-s-messy/article_eb857906-1a90-11e5-a14f-ff96584a286b.html

[16] USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). “Importing Products.” Last Modified Date June 25, 2015. http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/international-affairs/importing-products

[17] Tracy, Tennille. Wall Street Journal. “House Votes to Remove Country-of-Origin Labels on Meat Sold in U.S.” June 10, 2015. http://www.wsj.com/articles/house-votes-to-remove-country-of-origin-labels-on-meat-sold-in-u-s-1433990294