When you receive this issue of WLJ, mandatory Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) will be the law of the land and Pandora’s Box will be wide open. It took six years to have this law implemented and despite that time, it’s still a bad law. USDA and the meat industry are truly between a rock and a hard spot. They have tried to make it easy, but they are taking a lot of criticism from consumer groups and livestock groups that support COOL, as well as from Canada and Mexico.
Packers realized they were offered an easy way of dealing with the new label requirements. As one would expect, packers have taken the path of least resistance and plan to use the catch-all label, “Product of Canada, Mexico and USA.” We’ll call it the “North American label.”
Now, the fun begins. Several cattlemen’s groups were lobbying Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer to get rid of the North American label, which he seems compelled to do. Tom Harkin, D-IA, piped into Meat ingplace.com and said, “USDA seems to be taking liberty with their interpretation of COOL, and that goes against the sprit of the law and the negotiated settlement between producers and the packing industry.
Consumers deserve a commonsense rule that allows U.S. product to be labeled as intended.” Then, John Tester, D-MT, sent Schafer a letter expressing his concern that processors might choose the “cheapest and easiest option,” giving consumers the impression that there is no domestically born, raised and slaughtered livestock.
I’m afraid this COOL situation is on the edge of becoming out of control. The meat industry never wanted this regulation and has told us it would not create any additional value for American beef producers.
Now Congress, with the lowest approval rating in history, has its nose bent out of shape because USDA has attempted to craft a rule that was low-cost and unintrusive for the meat industry and producers.
Now we should ask ourselves if consumers will be more confused with the label situation or be more assured. USDA’s comment period on the interim rule generated only 600 comments, many were from industry groups, meat packers, distributors and retailers. The bulk of the comments were from consumers whose primary logic was that they have a right to know where their food comes from. It is estimated that this exercise in “right to know where your food comes from” is going to cost consumers and industry $3.9 billion dollars in the first year of implementation. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that consumers think it’s as easy as slapping a label on a package and that it’s no big deal. I honestly admire Agriculture Marketing Service and Bruce Knight’s crew for trying to keep everyone in the industry happy on this issue. Taking a few baby steps on this interim rule was a good choice; they were forced to make a good program from a bad law. If this law was written for the benefit of consumers, every product that has meat in it would have been included.
As it stands, only half of the meat products are a covered commodity. Ironically, one would think that consumers would want to know more about processed meat products than whole muscle cuts. The Canadians are extremely angry over our COOL regulations and have said they are “... prepared to consider all options” if the regulation has an adverse impact on their markets. At this point, the Canadians think the legislation is not in the best interest of the U.S. and its closest trading partners.
“Industries have worked hard in the 20 years since the Canada/U.S. free trade agreement was signed to make national origin irrelevant in business and consumer decisions,” they said. They also claim that COOL violates the North American Free Trade Agreement and World Trade Organization regulations, specifically the Codex, General Standards for Labeling of prepackaged foods which says “when a food undergoes processing in a second country that changes its nature, the country in which the processing is performed shall be considered to be the country of origin for the purpose of labeling.”
Canada also said they oppose the U.S. exporting any product with the “Product of Canada” label because the cattle have been transformed and are no longer the product of Canada.
USDA has tried to please everyone, perhaps to a fault. Pressure from consumer groups and some producers will be intense, as is the threat of legal ramifications from Canada and Mexico. By the time the sixmonth interim rule has expired, we may wish this COOL issue never happened. It certainly appears it will create more problems for everyone. — PETE CROW