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August 27th, 2015

Has USDA Approved Chinese Poultry Imports? Advocates Demand Answers

Washington, D.C.—Is a Cargill poultry plant in China poised to export meat to the United States? That question lies at the heart of a controversy sparked by an August 13th article on WATTAgNet.com that reported that a Cargill plant in the Anhui province had been cleared by USDA to export poultry meat to the U.S. because USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) had recently granted equivalency status to the poultry food safety inspection system there. According to the article, the Cargill plant had met the U.S. export requirements for poultry meat. In response to the report and conflicting comments from FSIS, the national advocacy organization Food & Water Watch sent a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack demanding that he clarify the situation.

“We were astonished and disturbed to read that a decision had been made by USDA to clear Cargill to export poultry to the United States,” said Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. “We have been following this issue for nearly a decade, and FSIS has not proposed a rule to permit China to export its own poultry to the U.S. Even though FSIS claims that the story is inaccurate, it has not asked for a retraction, suggesting to us that there may be some veracity to the story’s content. That is why we are demanding answers from USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack.”

Food & Water Watch contacted editorial staff at WATT publishing asking whether FSIS or Cargill had requested a correction or retraction; they indicated that none had been received. The story remains online despite the fact that FSIS officials claim it is inaccurate.

FSIS conducted an audit of China’s poultry inspection system in May of 2015. The report for that audit has not been posted by FSIS. At the present time, China is restricted to exporting processed poultry to the U.S. provided that the raw poultry comes from a handful of countries—the U.S., Canada, Chile and Israel. Only a new rule, subject to public comment, would allow China to export its own poultry meat to the U.S.

“Meanwhile, country of origin labeling is under siege at the World Trade Organization and in Congress,” added Hauter. “Consumers want to know where their food comes from, particularly if it’s from a country with notoriously lax food safety standards. If ever there were a situation where consumers would want to know the origin of their food, imported poultry from the People’s Republic of China would top that list. We hope Secretary Vilsack can shed some light on this situation.”

Read the letter to Secretary Vilsack here.

Contact: Kate Fried, Food & Water Watch, (202) 683-4905, kfried(at)fwwatch(dot)org

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August 19th, 2015

A Franken-Sized Salmon?

By Tim Schwabgeneticallyengineeredsalmon

For those of you who have read the Mary Shelley novel “Frankenstein,” you remember that the name refers to the scientist Victor Frankenstein, not the monster he constructed from body parts found in the local cemetery. The story has captured the public’s imagination for nearly 200 years, and “franken” has become a common prefix—and a pejorative—for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which are made with cut-and-pasted genetic material from different species of plants, animals and microorganisms.

GMO salmon—or franken-fish, as it is sometimes called—is an Atlantic salmon whose DNA has been re-engineered with a “growth-hormone gene construct” made from genetic material of other fish. One of these fish, the ocean pout, is only as closely related to Atlantic salmon, taxonomically speaking, as a human is related to a porcupine or a platypus. This recombination of genetic material would never happen in nature. Read more…

August 4th, 2015

New Information on WTO COOL Case Demonstrates Folly of Rash Congressional Action

Statement of Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter on Recent Filing by U.S. Trade Representative’s Office on WTO COOL Dispute

Washington, D.C. — “The Obama administration filed a legal brief in the World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute over the U.S. mandatory country of origin (COOL) labeling law for beef and pork that demonstrates the folly of Congress acting to repeal or weaken COOL before the WTO dispute is complete. The new information disproves Canada and Mexico’s overhyped claims for damages in the COOL case and argues for legislative patience rather than haste.

“Last week, the U.S. Trade Representative filed a brief in the WTO case documenting that actual penalties in the WTO COOL case should only be $91 million, a tiny fraction of the $3 billion in tariff retaliation threatened by Canada and Mexico. The United States Trade Representative (USTR) deconstructs the many economic errors used to estimate the tariff damages in the COOL case and ultimately dismisses the $3 billion penalty as ‘fundamentally flawed,’ ‘inaccurately estimated’ and ‘unsupportable.’

“The WTO has never certified Canada and Mexico’s absurdly high claims for damages from the COOL case and is only now considering what level of penalties might be appropriate. The USTR filing demonstrates that the penalties could — indeed should — be a tiny fraction of the $3 billion penalty used by Congress to justify repealing or weakening COOL before the final penalty is assessed by the WTO.

“Canada and Mexico have been bullying Congress with their over-inflated claims of damages, but USTR’s latest filing proves that this trade intimidation is all bluster. The Senate is currently considering either repealing COOL or converting it into a voluntary labeling program. Congress should wait for the final WTO decision rather than rashly eliminating or unraveling a law that consumers and farmers overwhelmingly support.”

Read the USTR filing here

Contact: Kate Fried, Food & Water Watch, (202) 683-4905, kfried(at)fwwatch(dot)org.

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August 3rd, 2015

You’ve Got Questions About GMO Labeling; We’ve Got Answers

By Sarah Alexander

BlogThumb_GMOkidsWe get a lot of questions about why we need labeling for GMOs, even from staff of members of Congress. Our answers are below. We hope you’ll contact your Senators today, and give them the information below, so they can vote the right way and protect your right to know what’s in your food.

1: What is a genetically engineered food or GMO?

A genetically engineered food is a plant or animal that has been changed by taking genes from one species and inserting them into the DNA of another species or altering the DNA in a way that could never happen through traditional cross-breeding or in nature.

2: Aren’t genetically engineered foods safe?

The approval process for new GMO crops in the U.S. is extremely weak and relies solely on the safety tests done by the corporations that are creating these crops. Right now, most crops are approved by federal regulators under the “generally recognized as safe” provision, which means that if a GMO corn variety looks and “acts” like the non-GMO version of corn, it is approved.

Currently, biotechnology seed companies and their advocates are oversimplifying the hundreds of factors involved in the GMO production process to broadcast the myth of a “scientific consensus” that GMO foods are safe. To the contrary, most scientific bodies weighing in on the subject openly acknowledge unaddressed safety considerations and gaps in knowledge.

3: But don’t farmers need genetically engineered foods to feed the growing world population?

Most of the GMO crops planted today are engineered to withstand strong chemical applications, or to produce their own pesticides. Often, the chemical companies like Monsanto, Dow and DuPont that create GMO crops also create the chemicals that have to be used with the crops, so the main benefit of these patented crops is for the companies and their profits. Additionally, most of these GMO crops — like corn, soybeans, canola and cotton — are not grown as food for direct human consumption, but rather for animal feed, or to create ingredients in processed foods.

4: If over 90 percent of Americans support the labeling of GMOs, why hasn’t Congress or the Food and Drug Administration done anything?

 What we eat and feed our families has a direct impact on our health and wellbeing, and we have a right to know if the food we’re eating has been altered in a way that could never happen in nature. Unfortunately, the big food industries spend millions lobbying Congress and federal agencies to keep labels off of GMO foods. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents the biggest food and chemical companies, has spent over $50 million to defeat labeling initiatives in multiple states.

5: Won’t labeling GMO ingredients cost companies a lot of money and raise the price of our food?

 This is one of the biggest industry myths. Consumers Union did a study last year that shows the requirement of labeling genetically engineered food ingredients will cost consumers less than a penny per day or $2.30/person annually.

6: Why should I take action and ask my Senators to oppose this legislation?

Genetically engineered crops are in most processed foods but are unlabeled, so many people who wish to avoid foods with GMO ingredients don’t know where they are lurking. GMOs are untested, and it’s unknown how these engineered foods may be impacting our health and the environment. At the very least, shouldn’t we have a choice to avoid them if we want to? The legislation that Congress is considering will prohibit any states from labeling GMOs and will make federal labeling voluntary, which is what we have already, and not a single product is labeled as containing genetically engineered ingredients.

Ask your Senators to support labeling of genetically engineered foods and to oppose any attempt to take away states’ rights to require labels.

July 30th, 2015

The DARK Act

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H.R. 1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act sponsored by Mike Pompeo (R-KS) and a brainchild of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), would make the already inadequate approval process for genetically engineered (GMO) foods even worse. The bill would make voluntary labeling for GMO foods the national standard and strip away consumers’ right to know by blocking all state efforts to require labeling of GMO foods. That’s why many advocates for labeling GMOs refer to this bill as the “Deny Americans the Right to Know Act,” or DARK Act. In July, the bill passed out of the House. The next step in the process is the Senate.

Farm, Consumer and Competition Groups Oppose JBS-Cargill Pork Merger

Deal Would Concentrate Buyer and Seller Power in Pork Industry

Washington, D.C. — Today, American Antitrust Institute, Food & Water Watch, Iowa Farmers Union, Missouri Rural Crisis Center and National Farmers Union demanded that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigate the proposed JBS-Cargill pork packing acquisition. The proposed $1.45 billion acquisition would create the second largest pork processing company in the U.S. The groups are concerned that increased concentration in the pork packing industry would harm hog farmers and consumers.

“The wave of mega-mergers sweeping the food and agribusiness industries encourages a cascade of consolidation throughout the supply chain,” said Wenonah Hauter, Food & Water Watch executive director. “The rampant consolidation is raising consumer prices, reducing consumer choices and undermining the economic livelihood of farmers.”

Food & Water Watch, Iowa Farmers Union, Missouri Rural Crisis Center and National Farmers Union also submitted a joint white paper documenting the anticompetitive effects of the proposed JBS-Cargill acquisition. The proposed deal would significantly increase the pork packing industry’s power over hog farmers.

A combined JBS and Cargill would accelerate vertical integration and reliance on hog production contracts. It would also, the white paper concludes, concentrate the wholesale pork product market, disadvantaging grocery stores and restaurants and ultimately raise pork prices for consumers. Post-merger, the largest two pork packing firms operating in the U.S. — Smithfield and JBS — would be controlled by foreign companies.

“The JBS-Cargill merger would combine the third and fourth largest pork packing companies in the United States, further concentrating an industry that is already run by just a handful of firms,” said National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson. “The rapid consolidation of market power in the hands of just a few pork processors has resulted in the loss of more than 90 percent of all hog farms since 1980. The JBS-Cargill merger certainly warrants further investigation by the Department of Justice and should be stopped.”

If the proposed acquisition were approved, the four largest pork packers would slaughter about three-quarters of hogs, up from about two-thirds today. The white paper extensively examines how the proposed acquisition would increase the economic market power of pork packers over farmers in the Midwestern hog belt. The proposed merger would reduce the number hog buyers and marketing options for hog farmers. After the proposed acquisition, the top four pork packers would control 94.5 percent of the market in Iowa alone, 85.5 percent in Iowa and surrounding states and 82.3 percent in Illinois-Indiana and surrounding states.

“The JBS-Cargill merger would reduce the number of hog buyers in the Midwest and allow the pork packers to further depress the prices farmers receive for their hogs,” said Rhonda Perry, Program Director at Missouri Rural Crisis Center and livestock and grain farmer in Howard County, Missouri. “The pork packing monopoly has already driven almost all the independent hog farmers out of business. The Justice Department has to stand up for America’s farmers and rural communities and block this merger.”

Rapid consolidation in the food and agriculture sectors has been of rising concern to farmers, consumers and federal regulators. Since the economy began to recover from the recession, the pace of mergers has accelerated and threatens to increase concentration in the already over-consolidated food and agriculture sectors.

AAI’s President, Diana Moss, explained “This merger could also create ripple effects throughout the food chain by spurring additional mergers to push back against the greater market power of JBS and Cargill. With less and less competition, we should be gravely concerned about the safety and stability of our important food supply chain.”

The letter to the U.S. Department of Justice is available here.

The Anticompetitive Effects of the Proposed JBS-Cargill Pork Packing Acquisition white paper is available here.

For more information, contact:

Kate Fried, Food & Water Watch: (202) 683-4905, kfried(at)fwwatch(dot)org

Andrew Jerome, National Farmers Union, (202) 314-3106, ajerome(at)nfudc(dot)org

Diana Moss, President, American Antitrust Institute, (202) 536-3408, dmoss(at)antitrustinstitute(dot)org

Tim Gibbons, Missouri Rural Crisis Center, (573) 449-1336, timgibbons(at)morural(dot)org

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Foodborne Illness is Not Funny

By Tony Corbo

Tony Corbo, Senior Food Lobbyist

Tony Corbo, Senior Food Lobbyist

I was stunned to read an account of a recent panel discussion on the state of food safety regulation that took place at the International Association of Food Protection (IAFP) in Portland, Oregon. There, a top food safety official from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) made light of his agency’s inability to prevent food-borne illnesses caused by salmonella. It speaks to the insensitivity of some officials to the sorry state of food safety in this country, and it calls into question the competence of these officials to hold such positions of responsibility in the Obama administration.

The news account to which I am referring was posted on the website of Food Safety News entitled, “IAFP 2015: Taylor and Almanza Share the Same State in Portland.” I did not attend the IAFP conference, so I have to rely on this news account of what transpired at the panel discussion. The panel was composed of the Obama administration’s two top food safety officials—Alfred Almanza, USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Food Safety and Acting Administrator for the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) (he holds more titles than a Russian general has medals) and Michael Taylor, the Deputy FDA Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine. Mr. Taylor was also the FSIS Administrator during the first term of the Clinton administration.

During a question and answer period with the audience, Mr. Almanza was asked that if USDA does not consider salmonella to be an adulterant in poultry (courts have ruled that because poultry is consumed fully cooked, it is the consumer’s responsibility to ensure it is safely handled), should salmonella be declared an adulterant in beef products since some consumers prefer to eat their beef rare. When a pathogen or other anomaly is considered to be an adulterant, food that contains it is not permitted to enter the food supply and if it does, it is subject to an immediate recall.

As he was trying to respond to the question, Mr. Almanza first fumbled and then tried to blame Mr. Taylor for not dealing with the issue when he was FSIS administrator during the Clinton administration. According to the Food Safety News story, the audience laughed at his so-called response.

Had I been in the audience, I would not have laughed, but I would have promptly gotten up and scolded Mr. Almanza. This is not funny, and neither Mr. Almanza, nor anyone else in the Obama administration, is even trying to correct this glaring loophole in USDA food safety regulations. Ask the 634 consumers who got sick from consuming salmonella-tainted poultry products processed by Foster Farms in 2013 and 2014 if salmonella is funny. It took Foster Farms 16 months from the time the outbreak began to recall voluntarily some of these contaminated products. Ask the 22 consumers who were made ill in 2013, or the 46 in 2012 who got sick from eating salmonella-contaminated ground beef if salmonella is funny.

The Obama administration needs to go to Congress and seek legislation to give USDA the authority to declare salmonella or any other pathogen that can cause food-borne illness an adulterant in order to prevent contaminated meat and poultry products from entering the food supply. It has chosen not to do that even when top administration officials, such as the Secretary of Agriculture, have been pressed to in Congressional hearings.

Now, there is pending legislation in Congress that would give USDA that authority, but the administration has not endorsed it.  However, it is moving ahead with plans to deregulate poultry inspection by turning over more of those responsibilities to the companies to police themselves.

This is not a laughing matter; it makes me very angry. So angry in fact, that I filed a Freedom of Information Act request in October 2013 for the all FSIS records into its investigation of the 2013-2014 Foster Farms outbreak. I am still waiting for a complete response to my request. That’s not funny either.

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July 28th, 2015

Food & Water Watch Calls on SEC to Reject GMO Salmon Stock Filings

AquaBounty Misleads Investors in Efforts to Join NASDAQ

Washington, D.C.—Food & Water Watch called on the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) today to reject the stock registration filings of AquaBounty Technologies (ABTX), the maker of genetically engineered salmon, based on misleading and erroneous claims the company is making in its attempts to join the NASDAQ stock exchange. The letter asks SEC to compel AquaBounty to revise the document to apprise investors of new scientific evidence showing that GMO salmon cannot grow as quickly as AquaBounty claims and also experience unique disease concerns.

“It’s one thing for AquaBounty to peddle fairy tales about its magical fish at industry conferences, but when you are playing with other people’s money, there’s no room for mythology,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “Investors need to know that GMO salmon doesn’t grow faster than conventional Atlantic salmon and that it may experience unique health issues, which raise environmental, animal health and food safety concerns.”

Food & Water Watch’s complaint letter highlights the findings of a recently released Canadian government risk assessment of GMO salmon, which noted dramatically diminished growth rates of GMO salmon in the company’s commercial facility.This finding adds to the evidence that GMO salmon cannot grow more quickly than existing commercially produced Atlantic salmon, contrary to AquaBounty’s claims.

“If investors want to put their money into GMO salmon, that’s their prerogative, but they need all the facts,” said Hauter. “Again and again, we see that AquaBounty is unwilling to provide the public a truthful, accurate accounting of limits and risks of GMO salmon.”

Today’s complaint letter follows several others that Food & Water Watch submitted to the SEC, which noted AquaBounty’s failure to alert investors about a major disease outbreak with GMO salmon and also a $9,500 fine that the company paid for environmental safety violations. After Food & Water Watch highlighted these and other omissions, misstatements and misleading information that would harm investors, AquaBounty amended its SEC filings several times.

“The reality is there is no appetite for this fish,” said Hauter. “Even if the FDA approves it, the salmon industry has stated that it won’t produce GMO salmon, and consumer polls show widespread public opposition.”

AquaBounty’s GMO salmon is currently undergoing regulatory review by the FDA and not yet in commercial production. No regulatory agency anywhere in the world has declared GMO salmon safe to eat.   

Contact: Kate Fried, Food & Water Watch, (202) 683-4905, kfried(at)fwwatch(dot)org.

Coalition Urges Senate to Reject COOL Repeal

Urges Senate to Reject So-Called Voluntary COOL Compromise

Washington, D.C.—Today, a coalition of 142 rancher, farmer, rural, consumer, manufacturer, labor, faith and environmental groups from across the United States delivered a letter urging the Senate to reject both the effort to repeal the country of origin labeling (COOL) law and the so-called compromise to convert COOL into a voluntary labeling program for beef, pork and chicken. Congress enacted COOL for beef, pork, chicken, goat, lamb, seafood and fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables in the 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills and expanded COOL to cover venison in the 2014 Farm Bill. Consumers overwhelmingly support these labels.

Rather than bow to pressure from the meatpacker lobby, the letter urges the Senate “to defend consumers’ right to know where their food comes from and the ability of farmers and ranchers to proudly identify their livestock as born and raised in America.”

In 2008, Canada and Mexico challenged COOL at the World Trade Organization (WTO), contending that these commonsense labels were a barrier to trade. Canada and Mexico have threatened an absurdly high penalty designed to frighten the U.S. Congress into rashly repealing COOL rather than allowing the WTO dispute process to be completed.

“It is premature for Congress to unilaterally surrender to saber-rattling from our trading partners in the midst of a long-standing dispute. COOL opponents have highlighted Mexico and Canada’s threats of retaliation as if their aspiration to seek billions of dollars in penalties were already approved by the WTO. But these unapproved, unrealistically high retaliation claims are merely aggressive litigation tactics designed to frighten the United States, a standard practice in WTO disputes. Congress should not fall for it,” the letter observes.

Last month, the House of Representatives passed a bill to repeal COOL for muscle-cuts of meat and ground beef, pork and chicken. Last week, dueling COOL amendments were offered on the Senate highway bill. Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) introduced an amendment to totally repeal COOL that was identical to the House repeal bill. Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.) introduced legislation that repealed mandatory COOL for beef, pork, chicken and ground meat but gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture the discretion to establish a voluntary COOL labeling program for only some of those meat products. The Stabenow-Hoeven measure was also offered as an amendment to the highway bill being considered this week in the Senate.

Both the full repeal and voluntary COOL measures inappropriately include chicken and ground meat even though the WTO ruled that the COOL labels for ground meat were WTO-legal and the dispute never considered chicken. The letter notes, “the legislation would repeal COOL for ground beef and ground pork as well as for chicken, but the WTO explicitly ruled that the COOL label on ground meat was WTO-legal, and the WTO never addressed chicken or other covered commodities.”

The broad-based coalition vehemently opposes any effort to repeal COOL but also opposes any effort to weaken COOL, including converting it into a voluntary labeling program. The United States had a voluntary COOL program for meat prior to implementing the mandatory labeling program under the 2008 Farm Bill, but the meatpackers refused to participate in the voluntary program.

“Voluntary COOL labeling is no solution to the WTO dispute: Meatpackers won’t use it, consumers won’t see it, farmers and ranchers won’t benefit from it and Canada and Mexico have already bluntly rejected this so-called compromise. Voluntary COOL is indistinguishable from repealing COOL,” the letter states.

Providing commonsense information to consumers is not something that should be left solely to the discretion of the meatpacking, food manufacturing and grocery retailing industries that have long-opposed consumer labeling disclosures. The letter states: “We do not believe that the interests of producers or consumers can be served by granting to the opponents of COOL the exclusive right to decide whether or not to affix voluntary COOL labels.”

The next phase of the WTO COOL dispute is expected to take up to six months and will consider the extent to which a simple consumer label has prevented Canada and Mexico from exporting cattle and hogs to the United States. Cattle imports are now higher than when COOL went into effect and hog imports are rapidly rising, severely undercutting the contention that COOL is a trade barrier.

“COOL is extremely important to our organizations and to the American public. We oppose any legislation that would undermine any portion of the COOL law, whether by outright COOL repeal or by converting the mandatory COOL law to a voluntary program,” the coalition letter states. “We urge Congress to stand up for America’s consumers, farmers and ranchers by rejecting any effort to unilaterally repeal or weaken a popular food label even before the WTO process has concluded.”

A copy of the letter is available here.

Contacts:

Bill Bullard, R-CALF USA: (406) 252-2516, billbullard(at)r-calfusa(dot)com

Kate Fried, Food & Water Watch: (202) 683-4905, kfried(at)fwwatch(dot)org

Kevin Dowling, Western Organization of Resource Councils: (406) 252-9672, kdowling(at)worc(dot)org

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July 23rd, 2015

Senate “Compromise” on Country of Origin Labeling Unacceptable

Statement of Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter

WASHINGTON, D.C. — “The Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) legislation introduced today by Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) and John Hoeven (R-North Dakota) repeals an overwhelmingly popular food label, surrenders to over exaggerated threats by our trading partners and creates more international trade problems than it solves.

“The legislation is aimed at solving an ongoing World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute, but the WTO process is far from complete. The Senate has never repealed a statute that was challenged under international trade rules before the dispute was completed.

“The legislation introduced today fully repeals mandatory COOL for beef, pork, chicken and ground meat and gives the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) discretion to establish a voluntary domestic label for beef, pork or chicken. It is considerably weaker than the discussion draft circulated last month because it repeals COOL labels for ground meat, which the WTO ruled were trade legal, and COOL labels for chicken, which were not even considered in the dispute.

“The legislation is a full repeal of COOL with the window dressing of a voluntary labeling option. But before mandatory COOL labels were re-enacted in 2008, meatpackers did not use voluntary COOL labels. In practice, a voluntary COOL label is the same as no label at all. Meatpackers won’t use it, consumers won’t see it and farmers and ranchers won’t benefit from it.

“Even if voluntary COOL labels went into widespread use, a voluntary labeling program could still face a challenge under international trade deals. The voluntary “Dolphin-Safe” tuna label has been successfully challenged at the WTO. Today’s voluntary COOL label is especially subject to challenge because it only applies to domestic livestock, there are no provisions for a voluntary label on imports, which creates the presumption that unlabeled and potentially imported meat is less desirable or less safe. That distinction runs afoul of every trade agreement’s rules prohibiting discrimination against imports.

“Consumers deserve to know where their food comes but today’s proposal puts meatpacking giants back in control of what we get to know about the food we buy. The Senate should not let international trade tribunals and big meat companies run roughshod over Congress’ authority to enact American laws. We urge the Senate to reject this bill and stand up for mandatory COOL.”

Contact: Kate Fried, Food & Water Watch, (202) 683-4905, kfried(at)fwwatch(dot)org. 

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