WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service has finalized a proposed rule on the mandatory country of origin labeling regulation.

The final rule became effective on May 23, and it makes changes to the labeling requirements for muscle cuts of beef, veal, lamb, chicken, goat and pork.

The proposed rule was published in the March 12 Federal Register , and comments were accepted until April 11. The proposed changes include modifying labels to include origin information about each of the production steps, as well as removing the allowance of commingling of muscle cuts.

These changes are in response to a ruling by the World Trade Organization after Canada and Mexico challenged the U.S. COOL law.

“Today’s publishing of the final rule is an extremely disappointing result,” said Mark Dopp, senior vice president of regulatory affairs and general counsel for the American Meat Institute.

“It is disappointing that the department did not take into account the lengthy and extensive comments that were filed pointing out the significant problems from the proposal published in March,” he stressed. “We believe we presented a compelling case economically and otherwise why this proposed rule, now final rule is a very bad idea.”

Dopp read every comment, both pro and con, that was submitted on the proposed rule. He noted that one comment said, “Please do not change the labeling requirements — I need my job.”

AMI also is disappointed that the final rule became effective upon publication in the Federal Register .

“That effective date presents a whole host of problems and ignores the reality of the marketplace and the supply chain,” Dopp noted.

“It also ignores the WTO compliance process that started this issue,” he said.

“We are deeply disappointed with this short-sighted action by the USDA,” added Scott George, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and Cody, Wyo. dairy and cattle producer. “Our largest trading partners have already said that these provisions will not bring the United States into compliance with our WTO obligations and will result in increased discrimination against imported products and, in turn, retaliatory tariffs or other authorized trade sanctions.”

The final rule includes a six-month period for an industry education and outreach program.

“Even recognizing the six-month period for the educational effort, the compliance process won’t be completed by then either,” Dopp said.

“We have a rule that goes into effect and everyone is supposed to comply, which can’t be done,” he said.

“This means everyone affected will have to begin to make changes, and it is possible that the Mexican and Canadian governments will prevail on the compliance process,” Dopp added. “If the WTO says the rule still doesn’t get it done, we will have done all this for nothing.”

The WTO compliance panel process typically takes from six to ninth months, the AMI spokesman reported.

“I expect whoever losses in the compliance process will appeal, and that will be a few more months,” he said. “It’s virtually impossible for there to be a WTO decision on compliance before the six-month education window closes.”

Since there is no public health or welfare issue in regards to this rule, Dopp said, it is disappointing that the USDA didn’t respond to a request from a collection of associations.

“We sent a letter to the secretary (of agriculture) several weeks ago suggesting the effective date be delayed until the WTO had a chance to rule on this final rule, but the USDA choose not to do that,” he noted.

The final rule is 98 pages in length, Dopp said, so it will take a little time to understand it completely.

“We need to educate our members about what the rule says,” he noted.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that we will be investigating along with other organizations that are opposed to this rule if there are opportunities to fix this in the Legislature,” the general counsel said.

Since companies likely have a label inventory, Dopp said, these companies will prefer to use that inventory before redesigning their labels.

“I expect some companies will begin to make some changes because you can’t flip the switch quickly,” he said. “If you need to buy new labeling equipment or develop software to be able to print a new label, those things can’t all be done the day before the six-month period ends.”

If companies continue to use their current labels, the AMI spokesman said, than they are expected to put up signage to comply with the final rule.

“The idea that the effective date is the day the rule is published is nonsense,” he stressed.