Labelling debate returns to U.S.

The process verification program is one tool American beef producers are considering as a way to introduce voluntary labelling.  |  Mike Sturk photo

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — The complicated and divisive conundrum of beef labelling in the United States has raised its head once again.

If a product sold at retail is labelled Product of the USA, beef producers want assurances that claim is true.

“Origin labels were considered generic labels by FSIS (Food Safety Inspection Service) and as long as the product passes approval in a USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) inspected facility, it can be eligible for the origin label,” said Gene Copenhaver, head of a working group with members from all parts of the country assigned to study the labelling issue.

An interim policy to resolve the issue without going back to mandatory country-of-origin labels was presented at the international trade committee of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. The working group’s proposal was presented at the annual convention held in San Antonio, Texas, from Feb. 4-7.

The NCBA wants accurate labels indicating origin of the product but it wants to avoid the complications caused by mandatory country-of-origin labelling, which was rescinded when Canada and Mexico successfully challenged its legitimacy before the World Trade Organization. The NCBA wants voluntary labels because a mandatory labelling law would allow retaliatory tariffs from Canada and Mexico.

One way around that is the process verification program.

The USDA-audited program ensures claims are accurate when a label is attached to beef, pork or poultry. The labels are often used for natural programs, antibiotic- or hormone-free products or other differentiated items where specific standards are set to meet the needs of marketing programs.

This voluntary approach is the right way to address this issue, said John Masswohl of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.

When beef is imported into the U.S. and is further processed in a federally inspected plant, it can be called product of the U.S.

“That can’t happen in Canada because in product-of-Canada labelling we have a list of minimal processing operations. If it only undergoes minimal processing you can’t call it product of Canada,” he said.

Further, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency regulations say a product-of-Canada label can be used on beef when the cattle have been fed at least 60 days in Canada.

The CCA argues the label should be allowed when the cattle are slaughtered in Canada regardless of where they were born or raised.

There are different camps in the U.S. that want stricter labelling standards to varying degrees, with some saying the label should only apply to beef derived from animals born, raised and processed in the U.S.

Others have proposed legislation for mandatory country-of-origin labelling and the NCBA proposal is a way to help fend that off, said Masswohl.

The issue came up at a meeting between Canada, Mexico and the U.S. during the convention.

Masswohl said they understand the end goal of the U.S. by proposing a voluntary source of origin claim with specific standards and verified by USDA. Mandatory COOL is not an option.

“If USDA is going to make these verifications, USDA is going to need to know what standard they are verifying against. If that standard was it (was) slaughtered in the U.S., no problem. If that standard was, it (was) born and raised in the U.S., then we are right back to where we were,” he said.

He said everyone is aware of the potential for retaliation, so Canada and Mexico should be asked if they believe a voluntary labelling proposal is still compliant with international trade rules.

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