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White House review may delay COOL

by Joan Murphy | January 29, 2009
WASHINGTON -- The country-of-origin labeling program, scheduled to go into effect in March, may once again be delayed because the new administration has directed all federal agencies to review former President Bush's end-of-the-term regulations.

In a Jan. 20 memorandum, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel directed federal agencies to stop all pending regulations and yet-to-be-implemented rules, and U.S. Department of Agriculture officials confirmed that the Jan. 16 COOL regulation would be reviewed by new management at the department.

"I want to state very clearly that I strongly support COOL, and I think it's important that we have a rule in place that gives consumers the information they need to make informed decisions while also allowing producers to differentiate their products and that provides clear and consistent guidance to affected industries," the newly confirmed agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, said in a press release.

"Prior to the effective date of this rule, as has been instructed by the memorandum from the White House, we will carefully review and analyze the regulation as well as comments that are received from the public," Mr. Vilsack told reporters the week of Jan. 19. "We will move quickly to comply with the direction and make sure that we obviously take COOL under consideration. But there has been no final decision made about COOL."

Consumer groups have criticized the new rule's definition of "processed food items," saying it excludes too many retail products from country-of-origin labeling, and complained that meat processors should not be able to label U.S. meat as a product of the United States, Canada and Mexico.

But one decision has been made by the new agriculture secretary: More than $3 million from specialty crop block grants will not be raided to pay for COOL enforcement.

"One of the things we've done is to withdraw a rescission, which had been requested by the previous administration in a popular program - a block grant program that provided millions of dollars of assistance to specialty crops, that would promote the growth of healthy fruits and vegetables," he said.

"It is clear, from what President Obama has indicated to me, that he wants this department to promote nutrition through the use of healthy fruits and vegetables," Mr. Vilsack.

Reaction was swift from the fresh produce industry.

"We are extremely pleased that Secretary Vilsack has made this decision and reversed what would have been bad public policy all the way around," said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association. "It is incomprehensible that the previous leadership at USDA would place the entire burden of funding COOL enforcement on our sector, when COOL applies to meat and seafood as well."

But now the question is where USDA will look for necessary funds to implement the new COOL program.

"If USDA believes additional funding is required for COOL enforcement, we strongly believe Congress should appropriate funding solely for that purpose," Mr. Guenther said.