NCBA Editorial: Congress Must Fix Country-of-Origin Labeling
DENVER - Congress passed a mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL) law for many fresh meat products as part of the 2002 Farm Bill. Its implementation has been delayed a number of times, mainly because of the logistical nightmares it will create for the livestock industry.
NCBA members do not oppose the concept of COOL. We raise the safest and best beef in the world, and we are proud to put a USA label on it. But specific flaws in the 2002 law are harmful to cattlemen, which is why NCBA has made several efforts to fix the statute. Unfortunately, we’ve been unable to do so, and we are all out of reprieves. Mandatory COOL is going into effect in September of 2008 – there’s just no way around it. This gives us very little time to persuade Congress to address the shortcomings of this law. But that’s exactly what we need to do, and we need your help.
How is the law flawed?
There are numerous deficiencies with the current COOL law, but let’s focus on the major problems:
Poultry is completely exempt.
That’s right – our #1 protein competitor is totally exempt from COOL. Proponents will say the United States does not import a lot of fresh poultry. That’s true, but that’s not the issue. By exempting all poultry, we allow the industry with which we compete most fiercely to completely avoid the costs and regulatory burdens of COOL.
In terms of enjoyment and flavor, Americans have repeatedly expressed a preference for beef over chicken. But we all know it’s difficult for beef to compete with chicken on the basis of price. This gets even harder when we are saddled with the additional regulatory burdens and costs of COOL, from which poultry escapes completely.
Foodservice is exempt.
Over half the beef consumed in America is not prepared at home – but rather in restaurants, hotels and cafeterias. For imported beef, the percentage is drastically higher. So where is the logic in having a grocery store meat case in which almost every single package of beef is labeled “product of USA,” while none of the beef served in a steakhouse, fast food drive-thru, or the local bar-and-grill is labeled at all?
If COOL is really all about informing consumers, this law falls woefully short by exempting the venues in which most imported beef is sold.
Record-keeping nightmares for cattlemen
Proponents of mandatory COOL would have you believe this law places a burden to prove origin on importers, but not on domestic producers. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. The requirement is placed squarely on retailers to prove that any product with a USA label is legitimately born, raised, processed within our borders. The retailer has no choice but to push this burden downstream to the processor, and the processor will do likewise to the cattle producer. Already we’ve seen information emerging from the packing and retail sectors about the paperwork required to market cattle under this law, and it’s not a pretty picture. It’s extensive and expensive - and it starts now, because there is no exemption for cattle born before the effective date of the law. So calves born this spring – if they are to be slaughtered in the fall of 2008 – are included.
They can’t make me do that…can they?
It’s easy to go on the defensive and say that packers and retailers can’t impose extensive paperwork requirements on you, just to prove the origin of your cattle. Well that’s true, they can’t. But they can refuse to buy them. Or they can offer you a much lower price than they pay for cattle that meet all the requirements.
NCBA supports voluntary efforts by cattlemen to source-verify their cattle, but has worked hard to keep mandatory animal ID from being forced on the nation’s cattle producers. But unless Congress takes steps to fix it, this flawed COOL law could end up being a back-door route to mandatory animal ID. If someone tells you this can’t happen, ask them to show you the part of the mandatory COOL law that protects you. There is none – it doesn’t exist.
COOL does not equal food safety
A number of food safety issues have emerged recently involving imported products, and this is sometimes used as a justification for the COOL law. But COOL does not improve food safety, and it is misleading to suggest otherwise. Food that does not meet U.S. health and safety standards should not be sold here – period! Putting a label on an unsafe product doesn’t help the consumer one bit. These products must be taken off the shelves and discarded, not given some sort of an “eat-at-your-own-risk” label.
These are the major reasons Congress must revisit and amend the mandatory COOL law. In its present form, it is simply too flawed to be beneficial to cattlemen or the consumers we serve. Nor can these problems be adequately addressed through agency rules and regulations. USDA has re-opened a comment period on COOL, but a regulatory agency is very limited in its ability to fix problems through regulations, when an underlying statute is so badly written.
As we try to persuade Congress to fix the COOL law, time is short and opportunities are limited. The House version of the 2007 Farm Bill may be our only hope. House Ag Chairman Collin Peterson is a staunch supporter of COOL, but he does recognize many of the shortcomings in the current law. As House committees begin their markups of the Farm Bill, we need the House leadership to step up and make the necessary corrections.
Surprisingly, NCBA won’t have a lot of help in getting this law fixed for cattlemen. Some groups that claim to support cattle producers are so infatuated with the idea of seeing COOL take effect, they are choosing to ignore the numerous problems in the law. They just want a COOL bill – and, apparently, any bill will do. The misinformation they spread on this issue - and their misleading denial of this law’s flaws - won’t make fixing it any easier. So we need you to reach out to your Congressman, and it must happen soon. Visit www.beefusa.org for more details on how you can help fix COOL.
Steve Foglesong is a cattle producer from Astoria, Illinois, and chairs the Policy Division of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.