Senators Vie To Reestablish Mandatory COOL
By GREG HENDERSON September 8, 2021
The American Beef Labeling Act was announced by four U.S Senators on Wednesday that would reinstate mandatory country of origin labeling (MCOOL) for beef.
The legislation will be formally introduced next week by Senators John Thune (R-S.D.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), and Cory Booker (D-N.J.). Thune and Booker are members of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
According to a statement issued by Senator Thune, the American Beef Labeling Act would require the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), in consultation with the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, to develop a World Trade Organization-compliant means of reinstating MCOOL for beef within one year of enactment. USTR would have six months to develop a reinstatement plan followed by a six-month window to implement it. If USTR fails to reinstate MCOOL for beef within one year of enactment, it would automatically be reinstated for beef only.
“Transparency in labeling benefits both producers and consumers,” said Thune. “Unfortunately, the current beef labeling system in this country allows imported beef that is neither born nor raised in the United States, but simply finished here, to be labeled as a product of the USA. This process is unfair to cattle producers and misleading for consumers. When you see a ‘product of the USA’ label on the grocery store shelf, it should mean just that.”
(Of note is the fact one of the four U.S. Senators who support MCOOL is Cory Booker, who claims to be a vegan and who proposed legislation earlier this year that would – among other things – force the closure of controlled animal feeding operations (CAFOs) by 2040.)
Country of origin labeling was included in the 2002 and 2008 farm bills at the behest of northern U.S. ranchers who compete with the Canadian cattle industry. It also was backed by consumer advocates who said it helps shoppers know where their food comes from. COOL first became law on March 16, 2009, and also covered chicken, pork and several other products. Processed meat products, meat purchased at restaurants and certain commodity meats such as turkey were exempt.
Implementation of COOL, however, was criticized by trading partners Canada and Mexico who claimed it was a trade barrier that created an unfair advantage for U.S. producers. They took their case to the World Trade Organization (WTO), which agreed. In 2015 the WTO authorized Canada and Mexico to place retaliatory tariffs on American goods which totaled more than $1 billion.
“The WTO has warned us multiple times, and Congress has ignored the warning,” said then Chairman of the Senate Ag Committee Pat Roberts (R-Kan) in 2015. “Retaliation is real. Now more than ever, we need to repeal COOL.”
The Senate has debated mandatory COOL for three decades, and Roberts championed the opposition. In December 2015 the Senate and the U.S. House repealed mandatory COOL and avoided the retaliatory tariffs from the WTO. Roberts has since retired, and his successor, Senator Roger Marshall is also on the Senate Ag Committee. Marshall was noticeably absent from the group of senators proposing to reinstate MCOOL.
Since it was repealed nearly seven years ago, MCOOL has remained a flashpoint for some ranchers who believe its reinstatement could help level the playing field. Disruptions from the COVID pandemic have reinforced that belief among many.
“Mandatory Country of Origin Labeling has long been a top priority for the South Dakota Stockgrowers,” said James Halverson, executive director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association. “MCOOL is the only way every single American producer can differentiate their beef from foreign products without leaving it up to some arbitrary program. We greatly appreciate working with Senator Thune on this legislation and hope we can continue to work together to get this across the finish line.”
“During the nearly seven years since MCOOL for beef was repealed, U.S. cattle producers experienced lower cattle prices and were deprived the means to build demand for their U.S.-produced cattle,” said Bill Bullard, chief executive officer of R-CALF USA. “Senators Thune and Tester’s bill to restore MCOOL for beef will now provide that means.”
“We greatly appreciate the work of Senators Thune and Tester in continuing to push forward solutions to define what constitutes a U.S. beef product,” said Justin Tupper, vice president of the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association. “From the perspective of the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, that label should pertain only to beef that was born, raised, and harvested in the U.S.A.”
Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack said July 1 he will continue the Trump administration’s process of developing a country of origin labeling rule. The push will include a “top-to-bottom review” of the existing rules and what the terminology means to consumers.
“I am committed to ensuring that the Product of USA label reflects what a plain understanding of those terms means to U.S. consumers,” Vilsack said.