Originally published in the April 18 edition of Iowa Farmer Today.
Do you know the country where your shirt was made? Probably not off the top of your head, but you could always look at the label to find out.
Now, how about the steaks you are about to grill for dinner? Luckily, you could also look at the label on that package of meat to find out. Many consumers don’t realize before 2009, when a mandatory Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) law went into effect, finding out where their package of meat was produced was not possible. You may also be unaware consumers’ right to continue to receive that information is currently under attack.
In 2002, Congress signed COOL into law after a fight that spanned many years. The National Farmers Union was a key proponent of the law for a number of reasons. Consumers fundamentally have a right to this information — which is found on toys, clothing, vehicles and nearly all other manufactured goods but previously not on food — and also because U.S. farmers and ranchers were proud of the quality products they produced and wanted consumers to know it.
However, our work wasn’t over when the law was passed in 2002. Congress blocked implementation of COOL twice, and the Bush administration, which opposed the law, was happy to comply. Finally, in the 2008 farm bill, Congress included a clear directive to implement the law, and the final regulation went into effect in March 2009.
As you might expect, the main opponents of COOL are meatpackers, processors and competitors from neighboring countries. These opponents know consumers want to eat meat that was produced here in the United States, and therefore they don’t want consumers to know U.S. meatpackers regularly buy cattle from Canada and Mexico and pass them off as U.S.-produced meat.
To distract COOL supporters, a pro-meatpacker research firm estimated the costs to the livestock industry of complying with the COOL law would be astronomical — up to $5.6 billion — with the suggestion compliance costs would then be pushed down to the livestock producer and pushed up to the consumer.
In 2002, the USDA placed estimated compliance costs at $2 billion, but used flawed calculations based on all 2 million farms in the United States, not just the 1 million that produce livestock.
Ironically, there were even suggestions by COOL opponents — who have pushed out millions of livestock producers due to increased concentration in livestock markets and anti-competitive practices — family farmers would go out of business because of the burden imposed on them by COOL requirements.
Well, COOL has been the law of the land since 2009, and I have yet to hear of a single rancher or producer who has found it to be burdensome. And, meatpackers certainly haven’t suffered due to the law — they continue to post record profits.
Although COOL is already in place, the law is being threatened by our foreign competitors. In 2009, Canada and Mexico filed a dispute with the World Trade Organization (WTO) claiming COOL was a violation of our trade obligations.
Last year, the WTO Appellate Body found informing consumers about the origin of their food is a legitimate objective and is not itself a barrier to trade. However, although the law itself meets our trade obligations, the way in which it was implemented by the USDA does not.
The Appellate Body found the regulations were written in a way that allowed loopholes for meatpackers to label certain U.S. products as foreign-born, and vice versa. Fortunately, the Obama administration is standing up for U.S. ranchers and livestock producers by rewriting the regulations in a way that both complies with the Appellate Body’s requirements and provides more accurate origin information to consumers.
And, as expected, our the meatpacking industry is once again asking lawmakers to scrap the COOL law altogether and keep consumers in the dark about their food.
It’s clear COOL is a common-sense policy that does nothing more than help consumers make educated decisions at the grocery store. In fact, most other countries believe the same. Fifty-seven countries — including Canada and Mexico, the most vocal opponents of the law — require some form of country-of-origin labeling for food.
These 57 countries account for 94 percent of U.S. trading activity for food and animals. It’s also obvious today’s consumers are only demanding more information about their food, not less. One perfect example is the 25 or more states that are working on laws requiring labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms.
COOL opponents will try and confuse you with exaggerated compliance costs and claims they speak for the farmer, but don’t be fooled. Consumers and livestock producers are not going to back down on COOL without a fight, and it is critical our lawmakers do the same.