USDA Heightened Country of Origin Labelling Laws: Good Start, Can Be Tightened

Vinita Banthia, MJLST Staff Member

The Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) laws have long been debated and amended in the Unites States. COOL regulation dictates the degree to which a product’s label must indicate which countries were involved in the production of the product. Currently, a product’s countries of origin must be labelled for the all of its ingredients, with the exception of where the product has been processed. These standards apply to food such as meat that had been born and raised in the United States but contains elements that have been produced in other countries like China. Hence, all raw foods and its ingredients must be labelled, including “raw muscle cuts, ground commingled meat, or live imported animals are not excluded.”

However, if meat has been born and raised in the United States, and then shipped to China for processing, then shipped back to the United States for consumption, it does not need to be labelled as being processed in China. Except for locations of processing, meat must be labelled for the countries where the animal lived during its life, and where it was subsequently “raised, slaughtered, butchered, and prepared for sale.” These laws have become increasingly strict since changes in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) consumer information policies in 2009 and 2013.

The recent Note, Country of Origin Labeling Revisited: Processed Chicken from China and the USDA Processed Foods Exception published in the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science, and Technology, by Daniel Schueppert highlights the stringent COOL requirements for raw and live foods. The Note discusses the recent change in the USDA funding and regulation policies that allowed the United States to export chicken to China for processing, and then import it back in to the US for commercialization without labelling the meat’s journey. The agricultural industry and grocery stores have been largely opposed to the laws as requiring excessive labelling for non-processed meats. Canada and Mexico have challenged the U.S. COOL laws at the WTO, stating that the COOL requirements for non-processed meat are overly burdensome on Canadian and Mexican beef exporters, thereby creating an unfair advantage for U.S. domestic beef. In October 2014, the WTO ruled in favor of Canada and Mexico. Canada has threatened retaliatory actions if the U.S. does not relax its COOL laws.

In contrast, Schueppert argues that some, limited COOL standards should also be applied to meat processed in China. This position supports greater restrictions not only for non-processed and raw foods, but also for processed meats. In addition, Schueppert argues that the current definition of processed foods is too broad and over-inclusive, leading to potential safety concerns in non-processed products. This argument holds more ground that the views of industries and countries unwilling to invest greater resources in ensuring the safety and disclosure of products. The USDA should continue to take measures to ensure that meat products are increasingly safe and well-labelled for consumers.