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Meat labeling appeal unlikely until next year

WASHINGTON – Last week the World Trade Organization found USDA’s mandatory country of origin labeling rule violates US obligations as a WTO member. An appeal of that decision probably won’t happen for a while, according to Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack.

“We have been advised by the WTO body that’s in charge of appeals, that, if there is to be an appeal, that they would encourage us to wait until January because of a backlog of other pressing business that they have,” explained Vilsack to reporters on Tuesday. “It would allow them to sort of focus and work on this in an appropriate manner.”

USDA requires many muscle cuts of meat sold in American stores to clearly indicate where the contributing animal was born, raised and slaughtered. The country of origin labeling rule is often shortened to COOL, and its supporters argue it gives consumers important information. COOL opponents argue keeping all that meat separate is a costly burden on the livestock industry.

The Office of U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman has not yet publicly stated if there will or won’t be an appeal, but in the meantime Vilsack says his department is exploring its options.

“I continue to press our team at USDA to see if there is a way in which we can work within the confines of the statute that Congress has passed,” says Vilsack, “and still create a scenario in which, consistent with that statutory directive, that we are also walking that fine line that the WTO has established in their rulings, indicating that we are able to label, but we can’t compel a discriminatory segregation of livestock.”

According to Vilsack, changing the rule requires that Congress do away with the COOL mandate. As Vilsack is asking USDA staff if there’s another way to craft a labeling rule without violating WTO rules, Canada’s Ag Minister Gerry Ritz is demanding the COOL rule be dropped, preferably by the next WTO meeting in November.

To hear more about the WTO decision and options for the United States, click the audio player above this story.