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COOL up in the air again

Confusion reigned early this week over whether the long-dreaded U. S. country-of-origin labelling rule would suffer yet another delay in implementation.

President Barak Obama, in one of his first acts after taking office, issued a memo ordering federal U. S. departments and agencies to review and/or delay all final regulations in process, but not yet in effect.

That includes the final COOL rule, scheduled to take effect March 16.

However, there was some doubt about whether the U. S. Department of Agriculture had the discretion to delay COOL.

As of Monday, USDA had not officially decided whether to delay COOL or leave the final rule as it is, said John Masswohl, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association international relations director.

The incertitude is the latest wrinkle in the COOL saga which Canadian livestock producers have laboured under since its inception seven years ago.

“I think there’s a heck of a lot of confusion out there,” Masswohl said. “I would say there’s just a lot of uncertainty as to what this is going to be.”

“I think there’s a heck of a lot of confusion out there.”

–John Masswohl, CCA

Presidential memo

Obama’s Jan. 20 memo told federal departments and agencies to withdraw all proposed and final regulations that have not been published in the Federal Register for review. It also asked them to consider delaying rules published but not yet in effect for 60 days, including a 30-day comment period.

Another presidential memo issued the following day said the 60-day extension should apply to rules “which raise substantial questions of law or policy.” But “for those rules which raise no substantial questions of law or policy, no further action needs to be taken.”

That gives USDA some wiggle room on whether to delay COOL, said Masswohl.

The final rule appeared in the Federal Register under the previous U. S. administration a week before Obama took office.

Review

It’s considered normal for a new administration to review, delay or even quash incoming regulations from the previous administration.

But Masswohl suggested there’s no good reason to delay COOL because it has gone through extensive scrutiny, consultation and revision since Congress originally authorized country-of-origin labelling in 2002.

“This isn’t something that USDA just did in the last week to get it out.”

The final version of the rule, scheduled for implementation March 16, gives U. S. packers some flexibility in labelling meat according to its country of origin. It allows them to use a label for mixed origin, so they may not have to segregate Canadian-born cattle and pigs from American ones.

This gives Canadian producers hope that U. S. packers will once again take their animals. Shipments of Canadian slaughter cattle and hogs to the U. S. fell sharply after the interim final rule, which appeared last fall, limited commingling.

Uncertainty

Masswohl said U. S. packers are gearing up to once again accept live animals from Canada under the final rule. Delaying COOL, if it happens, could set those plans back by renewing uncertainty over what’s permitted, he said.

“That’s the unfortunate thing about this situation. Maybe some companies are just going to say, you know what, we’re not going to risk doing this or that and things will come to a halt.”

A U. S. meat industry spokesperson said no one knows what will now happen to COOL. He could not rule out further changes to it.

“My understanding is that they could send it back for another round of rule making but I don’t think they can kill it,” said Jeremy Russell, a National Meat Association spokesperson in Oakland, California. “It’s passed the Congress, it’s gone through review and I think they can just request another round. So that would mean they could maybe change it.”

Pressure

There’s speculation Obama may be pressured to toughen COOL, especially since he and other senators last fall wrote the USDA secretary demanding tighter enforcement.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz was not surprised at the possible delay.

“This is totally expected,” Ritz said. “An incoming president wants to put his seal on government regulations. We understand President Obama is under pressure to bring in a strict rule. But we’ve also got Mike Johanns, a former USDA secretary, urging him to help trade in North America by combining labels B and C.

“We hope cooler heads prevail in the next 60 days. I’ll be talking with the new secretary (Tom Vilsack) next week and urging him to support an integrated label.”

(With files from Alex Binkley) [email protected]

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