MCOOL compromise time

Opinion
Apr 19, 2013

I have to wonder how US- DA will finally deal with Mandatory Country of Origin Labeling (MCOOL). I took a good look at the comments filed at USDA’s filing website, and if USDA looks at them closely, from a number of points of view, the beef industry will have a problem and the MCOOL saga will continue. As of last week, roughly 550 comments had been filed. One of the big turnouts, Tyson Foods, must have had a mass employee effort, but most of the comments were from foodies with various agendas.

 

USDA’s secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, said he was looking for data and research to help him with the rulemaking process, and Texas Cattle Feeders Association and other groups were quick to point out research from Kansas State University that basically claims that nobody cares about MCOOL. I think for the most part, folks would like the information, but they certainly don’t want to pay anything extra to have it.

This current COOL situation appears to look like no one will be happy with it. The packing industry will lose this one and origin data will have to follow all cattle through the system. Many cattlemen are already doing it and it will be everyone’s responsibility to pass the data up the line.

The ironic part of this MCOOL episode is that Mexico and Canada will still be unhappy with the law and the World Trade Organization (WTO) will more than likely allow Canada and Mexico to impose retaliatory tariffs on other products, which doesn’t seem like a very good way to treat your top two trading partners.

This law has always been about maiming the big packing industry, but how can you impose added costs to big packers without expecting those costs to come back down the line and cost you something. R-CALF and the National Farmers Union were originally behind this effort; then they enlisted consumer groups to carry the water and provide them with big numbers of supporters. These radical trade groups certainly haven’t helped their industry much in my view.

It’s funny how we always cater to the minority in this country; so few people have a concern about this beef origin situation. Knowing that it was processed in a USDA-inspected processing plant has been good enough for a hundred years. The real problem centers on the comingling of product. If people are so concerned about where their beef comes from, they have plenty of choices with branded beef products that they will generally pay a premium for.

It seems like everyone has a dog in this fight, but no one has enough information to base a final rule on. I’d bet that most of the proponents of MCOOL have never been in a large processing plant that does 5,000 head a day. Keeping track of the carcass isn’t really the tough part, it’s when those carcasses go in to the breaking room to be cut up into primals, and then taking all that trim that goes into ground beef, that the origin problems come in. Most packers will do a day’s run on each class of cattle, and some plants will process Canadian cattle and other plants won’t. It’s more of a geographic thing.

But it all seems liked a wasted effort for Vilsack to even make the rule changes because it’s widely known that WTO is just going to throw them back and allow for the tariffs to begin. The Canadians and Mexicans are not going to be happy with any rule that discriminates against their cattle.

R-CALF has been promoting the idea to USDA to make the record keeping simple and allow the packing plants to call the origin shots. This is one thing I may agree with R-CALF on—let the packers use the import brands to claim origin of the cattle. They wear a CAN or M brand and by default, everything else is born, raised and processed in the U.S., keeping the cattle producers out of the information gathering business if they so choose; although, many cattlemen have found information gathering to be a plus. But R-CALF claims that their method would satisfy MCOOL.

But then there is going to be that one person who will ask the retailer to prove it to them, and then the legal battle is on again because everyone along the beef chain will want to be indemnified. This law has always been a mess. I’d say it’s time to get Canada and Mexico in the room and find a solution everyone can live with. — PETE CROW

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