USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Friday that the final mandatory country of origin labeling (COOL) rule submitted to the Federal Register – then withdrawn for review by the administration – will go into effect March 16, as the final rule indicated.

But in a letter to industry representatives the same day, Vilsack wrote that USDA “will be closely reviewing industry compliance with the regulation and its performance in relation to these suggestions (more later) for voluntary action. Depending on this performance, I will carefully consider whether modifications to the rule will be necessary to achieve the intent of Congress.”

Among the suggestions for voluntary implementation, Vilsack says he is concerned about the regulation’s treatment of product from multiple countries. Apparently this is aimed at the possible strategy – fully in keeping with the mandatory law – of labeling product that is born, raised in and/or slaughtered in the U.S. and not imported for immediate slaughter – as a product of the U.S. and the other countries involved in the process. It’s one way packers might be able to reduce the costs COOL imposes, while also recognizing the value added by U.S. producers to a product originating somewhere else. In this case, let consumers know the product stems from U.S. production and that of other specific countries.

Instead, Vilsack emphasized in his letter, “In order to provide consumers with sufficient information about the origin of products, processors should voluntarily include information about what production step occurred in each country when multiple countries appear on the label.”

To do so obviously requires exponentially more paperwork, especially since the law expressly prohibits a national animal ID that would give meaning to COOL.

It’s a whole lot like saying, “The mandatory tax rate is X%. If you don’t voluntarily pay 2% more than that – which I’m sure was really intended by the law, then I’ll have no choice but to make sure the law is changed.”

Rather than enforce the law, apparently the new USDA Secretary intends to make it as well.