Legislation proposing voluntary country-of-origin labeling on meat products has entered the U.S. House. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte introduced the bill– H.R. 2068– with 33 cosponsors. It comes in response to mandatory provisions in the 2002 Farm Bill requiring retailers to inform consumers of a product's country of origin at the final point of sale.

Known as the “Meat Promotion Act of 2005,” the bill would amend COOL requirements in the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 and require the U.S. Ag Secretary to establish a voluntary program that allows producers to work with processors and retailers. The effort would be to provide origin labeling that informs consumers and benefits producers. The Act would permit retailers to label beef, pork and lamb as U.S. products if they wish, and if they are derived exclusively from animals born, raised and slaughtered in the United States.

Current COOL efforts are to have a mandatory program effective in the fall of 2006.

“It has been three years since enactment of the 2002 Farm Bill and there is still a lack of consensus about how the COOL provisions can best be implemented," says Goodlatte.

He points out that he favors a voluntary approach and this legislation would replace the current mandatory system– "with its potential to create another layer of regulatory and business costs"– with a voluntary program.

“This approach benefits consumers and producers and is preferable to a mandatory program that is more likely to hurt the people it was intended to help,” says Goodlatte.

The COOL provisions have been controversial within producer, processor, supplier and retail communities. Goodlatte says his bill is a response to the call for a voluntary program that is market driven, recognizes existing labeling programs, minimizes recordkeeping, allows flexibility and is cost-effective.

Under Goodlatte’s legislation, compliance with the COOL provisions in the 2002 Farm Bill would no longer be mandatory. Farmers, ranchers and retailers would decide whether they want to label products with the country in which they were produced. Additionally, USDA would be required to create a unique label that retailers could use to designate the country of origin.

Program participants would be required to maintain records enabling USDA to verify program compliance. Violators, such as anyone who labels meat inaccurately, would be subject to a civil penalty of up to $10,000.

“The stated intent of those who advocate mandatory COOL has been to benefit producers, which is a worthy goal. Unfortunately, no one has made a clear case to me that mandatory COOL does anything to help producers,” says Goodlatte. “This bill's voluntary approach ensures that those who are paying the cost of the regulation will be doing so because they've determined that the program provides an added benefit.”

 Source: U.S. House Agriculture Committee