In the late 1990s, the idea of marking meat products with their country of origin started to circulate in ag circles. As meat products from other nations began to provide some competition to US meat products, producers felt a “made in the U.S.” label would give them a competitive edge. Yet some feared such a program would be hard to administer and be costly to producers, packers, and consumers. When the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 (known as the 2002 Farm Bill) was passed, section X of the bill contained a provision that mandated retailers to provide country-of-origin labeling for fresh beef, pork, and lamb. Congress passed an expansion of the COOL requirements in 2008 which included more food items such as fresh fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Now Congress is on the verge of eliminating mandatory labels for beef, pork, and poultry. The story of COOL has more to do with politics, marketing, trade, and greed than it does about informing consumers the origins of their hamburger.
In 2009, the Canadian government launched a challenge to COOL at the World Trade Organization (WTO). The Canadian federal government argued before the WTO that American “country of origin” labelling rules (COOL) actually worked to the detriment of the meat industry on both sides of the border by increasing costs, lowering processing efficiency, and otherwise distorting trade across the Canada-U.S. border. Mexico made similar claims. Over the next 6 years, the WTO ruled again and again that the U.S. law violated international trade rules and must be removed. The U.S. appealed and appealed, but lost every time. In 2015, the WTO gave Canada and Mexico permission to impose $2 billion a year in trade sanctions against the U.S. unless the COOL law was repealed.
Congress is now trying to act quickly to avoid the sanctions, but they are having trouble. Democrats have always been big supporters of COOL, while Republicans generally oppose the idea. These battle lines have not changed. Farm Bureau and most producer groups favor the repeal of COOL, while labor unions and consumer groups want to keep the labeling system. Meanwhile, consumers are mystified about what the problem is. It seems to be such a simple idea: just put a sticker stating the meat’s origin.
Unfortunately, the trip from farm to meat case is not a simple one and makes maintaining the national origin of a meat product next to impossible. For example, a calf is born in Montana. When it is a year old, it is sold to a rancher in Canada who raises it to market weight. He then sells it to a packing plant in Minnesota. Is the meat from that animal a product of the U.S. or Canada? Then, there is the case of ground beef. That 2 pound chunk of ground chuck on the Styrofoam tray in the meat case is 80% lean beef from the U.S., but 20% not so lean beef from Mexico. What is its country of origin?
According to USDA records, the 10 year cost of COOL has been $8 billion. Overseen by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, mandatory Country-of-Origin labeling is a marketing program — separate from any food safety regulations. The purpose of COOL was to increase the demand for U.S. meat products, but it has not. “The government-mandated program failed to increase demand for U.S. beef and is leaving cattle producers, packers, and retailers bearing the cost of a failed experiment,” said Philip Ellis, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association president. “Labeling can be a valuable marketing tool, but it’s not the role of the government to market our product; and frankly, they do a poor job of it.”
COOL has failed to achieve its goals. Consumers may say they want country of origin labels, but they have shown it is not something that drives their buying decisions. Congress needs to stop meddling in the market and playing politics with our food supply. Eliminating COOL will not make our food any less safe — and it might even bring down the cost. It will certainly prevent a costly and needless trade war.
By Gary Truitt