—New law provides labeling, while reducing record keeping requirements and

Cattle Market & Farm Reports, Editorials
Dec 20, 2007
by WLJ

As a part of its enormous 2007 Farm Bill proposal, the House Ag committee passed a modified mandatory Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) law two weeks ago after a late night session. The revised program put forward by the committee creates a labeling program similar to that required by the school lunch program.

According to the COOL language in the bill, it provides for three categories of labeling. One that indicates the product was born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S.; one that indicates product was not exclusively born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S.; and one that includes products entirely from other countries. For ground meat, products can be labeled with a list of countries where product may have originated. In addition, the regulations provide a grandfather clause for cattle in the U.S. prior to Jan. 1, 2008, omitting them from any required COOL documentation. Perhaps most importantly, the modified version doesn’t create any additional record keeping for livestock producers.

 What remains to be seen is what language will be required on the actual label itself if the program makes it intact through to the president’s desk for a signature.

However, the proposal still has a long way to go before becoming law, including a full debate and vote in the House of Representatives and a conference committee where the House and Senate will hash out a program that will likely be a compromise between two Farm Bills. The Senate Ag Committee is running behind schedule and announced last week that it will not be ready for a vote on a Farm Bill proposal until September. Senate Ag Committee Chair Tom Harkin, D-IA, said last week that he envisions a very different version of the bill coming from the Senate, which could include different plans for COOL. Harkin expressed surprise at the House’s version of COOL following its passage. Other senators also took action on COOL last week. In fact, last week, Sen. Tim Johnson, D-SD, managed to pass an amendment to the fiscal year 2008 ag spending bill which includes a provision that establishes benchmarks for USDA’s implementation of mandatory COOL and reaffirms the program will take effect on Sept. 30, 2008.

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) members, who were attending the groups’ mid- year meeting in Denver, CO, when the House compromise was struck, expressed at least partial satisfaction with the new requirements after arguing that the version passed as part of the 2002 Farm Bill was too cumbersome for the industry.

“We support the concept of country-of-origin labeling, but NCBA has contended for many years that a poorly written COOL law will be harmful to the U.S. cattle industry,” said Jay Truitt, NCBA vice president of government affairs. “Our top priority from the beginning has been that the benefits of COOL must outweigh the costs for cattle producers. We took some major steps in that direction last night.”

He cautioned, however, that the latest version of COOL is far from perfect. Poultry is still completely exempt from all requirements imposed on beef, pork and lamb. This is a major disappointment for cattlemen because poultry is beef’s primary protein competitor in the consumer marketplace.

“Perhaps when COOL takes effect, consumers will wonder why beef is labeled, but not chicken. Cattlemen have been wondering that same thing throughout this process,” Truitt said.

NCBA’s final objection to the COOL law is the misconception that it will address food safety issues. NCBA President John Queen, a North Carolina cattle producer, said labeling is not a solution to recent safety problems with imported foods.

 “Any product that does not meet the health and safety standards of the United States should not be sold here—period,” Queen said. “Don’t put an ‘eat-at-your-own-risk’ label on it. It has no place on our stores shelves. Turn it away at the border, or throw it out.”

Not suprisingly, R-CALF United Stockgrowers of America also welcomed the passage of the program. After the announcement, R-CALF CEO Bill Bullard also noted the improvement in the bill which eliminated the burdensome record keeping requirement for the industry. This has been a key sticking point for producers and packers alike.

“Only cattle born, raised and slaughtered in the United States will qualify to receive the ‘Product of the U.S’ label, and there is no doubt that our members have played a significant role in defending country-of-origin labeling, so it’s a tremendous victory for R-CALF,” Bullard said. “This combination of grassroots lobbying and national attention quickly eroded the anti-COOL efforts of meatpacker trade associations.”

Bullard said passage of the bill despite strong opposition from packing industry lobbying groups, as well as others who opposed the program in its original form, was the direct result of the efforts of National Farmer’s Union and R-CALF membership as he thanked Ag Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-MN, and leaders of the National Farmers Union, who Bullard credited with helping to craft the legislation.

 Although the House Farm Bill package was still being debated on the House floor last week, Peterson said last week he did not foresee that challenges to the package forwarded by the Ag Committee would be successful, saying that his committee had worked closely with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, in crafting the proposal.

“The speaker is involved in this,” he said during a press conference, July 20. “There may be amendments offered, but I don’t think they will be successful.” — John Robinson, WLJ Editor