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Berginski: Cold reception for COOL

By Staff | Jun 11, 2015

Country of origin labeling – on its face it doesn’t sound cool, despite its acronym. And yet, nine out of 10 Americans actually support it, so it must be cool, right? Well, some believe otherwise and the result of their actions could affect consumers.

Technically, the U.S. already had some form of country of origin labeling in place. Under subsection 1304 of Title 19 of the U.S. Code, or the Tariff Act of 1930, EVERY (capitalized for emphasis) imported item must be marked in English to indicate to an “ultimate purchaser” where the item came from. The ultimate purchaser in that case means the last person to purchase the item as it came, which didn’t always mean the consumer in the grocery store. It could’ve also meant the factory at where that thing was processed.

Congress then put provisions in place in the 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills that required labels saying where beef, pork, chicken, goat, lamb (muscle cut and ground), seafood, fruits, vegetables and nut products come from. Last year, the provisions were expanded to include venison.

But since its inception, Canada and Mexico (and some U.S. producers) have not been cool with the red meat portion of COOL. (Yes I know, I’m really milking the c-word for all it’s worth.) The two countries complained to the World Trade Organization that the rules the U.S. put in place were discriminatory, and the WTO agreed in 2011. So in 2013 the U.S. modified its rules, requiring labels saying where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered. On May 18 of this year, the WTO ruled against the U.S., again, saying the labeling rules currently in place are also discriminatory. Now the U.S. is in a position where it will have to either change its existing labeling laws or throw them away altogether.

Fearing backlash from the two countries in the form of supposed retaliatory tariffs, there have been calls to repeal the rules from organizations such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the N.D. Stockmen’s Association. In a Monday op-ed to the Grand Forks Herald, NDSA president Steve Brooks said Canada and Mexico together “account for more than $2 billion in U.S. beef exports a year, or a third of all U.S. beef exports.” He also said COOL has cost the cattle industry more than $8 billion. Holy crap that’s a lot of money, no wonder they want it repealed!

But while the NCBA and NDSA both issued calls for Congress to repeal COOL, the Independent Beef Association of N.D. or I-BAND, urged restraint. In a press release sent out after the WTO ruling, I-BAND said the NDSA was propagating “misinformation and fear-mongering”; that the U.S. being subject to harmful tariffs was “further from the truth”; and that “Canada and Mexico would have to prove that COOL has actually harmed their cattle and beef industries and they would have to prove an economic value attached to that harm before retaliation would be permitted by the WTO.”

Also 283 groups, including the Dakota Resource Council, North Dakota Farmers Union and the AFL-CIO, sent a letter to Congress urging them to not repeal COOL, despite the House Ag Committee voting to do so. The letter cited cattle imports being higher today than when COOL went into effect, hog imports rebounding, COOL not impacting livestock trade, and that consumers continue to demand more information about their food.

And why wouldn’t consumers want to know more about what food items they buy and, eventually, eat? If there was food on the market right now that’s contaminated with e. coli., consumers would want to know if they bought it from their grocery stores, where the item in question came from and who processed/handled it. Even I’d want to know if the steak that I grilled, the chicken that I marinated and baked, or the pork that I was going to put in my face hole was going to make me or my family sick.

Pardon me for sounding naive, but there is no reason why the rules can’t be changed in a way that keeps our neighbors to the north and south happy while still keeping consumers informed.

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