Hot and cold on COOL: Some want revival of controversial meat labels

Hot and cold on COOL: Some want revival of controversial meat labels

Seth Tupper Journal staff

Feb 7, 2016

Critics might consider attempts to revive country-of-origin meat labeling as useful as beating a dead cow, but supporters of the repealed program believe it is worth it for South Dakota ranchers and members of Congress to keep pushing for its revival.

The formerly mandatory labeling program for beef and pork, known as COOL for country of origin labeling, was repealed by Congress nearly two months ago. But the topic continues to inspire passionate divisions among the otherwise uniform mass of cowboys, ranchers and meat producers who were in Rapid City last week for the Black Hills Stock Show & Rodeo.

The South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, headquartered in Rapid City, is advocating for federal legislation to bring COOL back, but in a modified form. The association’s executive director, Silvia Christen, said queries about COOL’s status and future are among the most common questions she has fielded at her stock show booth in the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center.

Christen said COOL was a good program that encouraged consumers to choose U.S. beef over foreign alternatives, just as is the case for labels on some other foods and consumer products.

“I am confident that we’ll eventually figure out how to make sure that we can get those labels on our beef products as well,” Christen said.

Interviews with stock show attendees indicated that support for COOL remains strong among ranchers. Comments by LeRoy Kindler, who owns cattle near Newell, were representative of those interviewed. He called the repeal of COOL “plumb ridiculous.”

“Why shouldn’t we have country-of-origin labeling?” Kindler said. “They label our fruits, our vegetables, our clothes.”

Some others, especially those higher up in the beef supply chain, want to keep COOL buried. Craig Uden, a Nebraskan and president-elect of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, espouses that view. He said COOL burdened the beef-production process with extra costs while providing no benefits to producers and angering foreign trade partners.

“As a producer, I’ve never seen any benefit to it,” said Uden, who operates multiple cow-calf operations and feedlots.

Uden thinks COOL is gone for good, but the stockgrowers group and other COOL supporters hope it can be remade in a way that will not run afoul of international trade agreements, as the previous incarnation of COOL did.

It’s unclear exactly what changes to the program might make it more palatable on the world stage. Christen said future labels could perhaps be more generic than the most recent versions, which consisted of small print stating the countries where an animal was born, raised and slaughtered.

That level of specificity angered some Canadian producers, whose cattle may have been fattened and slaughtered in the United States but were deemed foreign — and therefore potentially devalued by some consumers — because of their birthplace.

The World Trade Organization sided with that argument and deemed COOL’s requirements to be discriminatory, and also authorized Canada and Mexico to impose more than $1 billion in retaliatory tariffs on U.S. exports. The South Dakota Farm Bureau estimated that in South Dakota alone, $344 million worth of beef and pork could be subject to the tariffs.

Because of that looming economic threat, some members of Congress said they had no choice but to repeal COOL. They did so in December by including the repeal in a year-end spending bill, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture immediately stopped requiring the labels on beef and pork.

The congressional action seemed to put an end, at least temporarily, to a fight over meat labeling that dates to the early 2000s. Congress adopted COOL in 2002, partly as a response to fears of mad cow disease in Canadian cattle and with then-Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., as the primary legislative proponent. Lobbying and legal wrangling by COOL opponents, including meat packers, delayed implementation of the law until 2009.

Meanwhile, Canada brought its case against COOL to the World Trade Organization in 2008. The case played out to its end in early December last year, sparking the congressional repeal.

COOL supporters now find themselves without the assistance of one of their staunchest supporters in Johnson, who retired from the Senate last year. The stockgrowers and other COOL supporters are seeking new congressional leaders to draft legislation in a fight to revive the labels.

One of the members of Congress who is being courted is U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., who hosted a Black Hills Stock Show & Rodeo town hall meeting Friday in a sale ring of the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center. She anticipated some questions and comments about COOL.

“It’s by no means dead,” she said Wednesday from Washington, D.C., on a conference call with reporters. “We’re still looking at potential solutions that we can find that won’t do damage to the markets or take money out of the ranchers’ pockets.”

U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., also attended the stock show Friday and said he continues to support COOL, said he is open to suggestions for bringing it back in a modified form. But he did not sound optimistic.

"I just think those of us who are for it are vastly outnumbered now politically," Thune said, "and I think it’s going to be a much heavier lift this time."

Uden doubts that a modified COOL could win the World Trade Organization’s blessing. Even if that happened, he said, he doubts consumer purchasing decisions will be significantly influenced by country-of-origin labels. He prefers private, voluntary, market-driven labeling programs such as Certified Hereford or Certified Angus, which he said are numerous, noticeable to consumers and capable of adding value to qualifying cattle.

Uden said the added steps and costs that came with COOL, including extra record-keeping and segregation of American and foreign cattle in feedlots and at packing plants, did not come with enough financial rewards. There are opposing claims about that, with each side having its own studies and statistics.

Those competing claims continue to be cited even after the repeal of COOL, and judging by the comments of stock show attendees such as Gayle Cerullo, a COOL supporter from Newell, the repeal has only caused each side to grow more entrenched and determined.

“I try to be as educated as I can and look at all aspects, but this really bothers me,” Cerullo said of the COOL repeal. “It’s flat-out scary. They’re trying to ruin our beef industry.”

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