Livestock interests fighting themselves over COOL rule
By Ken Root
The livestock industry came out against the 2014 farm bill legislation because of what it did not contain: repeal of Country of Origin Labeling for red meat. My quandary is why American meat producers are opposed to recognition of their product as born, raised and slaughtered in the United States. Opposition to COOL is not unanimous and therein lies the conflict between producers and organizations that represent livestock producers and processors.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association says that COOL costs them money because the consumer really doesn’t care about the origin of their beef. That doesn’t square with the arguments offered by proponents of the legislation going back to its origin. The survey data I’ve seen shows that consumers want to know more about their meat, from origin to handling of the animals to hygiene of the process. The current argument from NCBA is that consumers really don’t mean it when they say they care about where their beef was born or raised and that packers shouldn’t be accountable. What NCBA seems to care most about is what the meat packers want: unfettered ability to commingle all animals in North America.
The COOL law is in effect and both sides are firmly entrenched, but in the case of NCBA and the meat processing industry, the tail is wagging the dog.
Arguments by livestock groups did not sway the President Barack Obama administration, or Congress, in the recent negotiations over the farm bill. Since the law has been in effect since 2009 for seafood, fruits, vegetables, nuts and red meats, it has been functional in identifying origin at the retail level and that seems to be the problem. Processors have had to document their supplies to be in compliance. They have proven they can do so, but it costs money and the American Meat Institute convinced NCBA and National Pork Producers Council that the money is going to come out of the producers’ pockets. Some livestock and farm organizations came down on the other side and prevailed in their argument for the original concept of mandatory COOL.
At a time of high beef prices, it is hard to say that cattle producers would get more money if COOL did not exist. I have never seen a packer premium for anything other than grade and yield on individual animals. The pork industry has become so homogenous, consolidated and contracted, it doesn’t seem that labeling the source would be expensive or complicated.
Worldwide livestock interests, led by Mexico and Canada, are opposing COOL in the World Trade Organization with the full support of American meat interests. I wonder how much dissent there would be if the U.S. showed a common front.
The confrontation over COOL again shows the split in the livestock industry. Although NCBA and NPPC oppose it, any group on the other side supports it. Recently, U. S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack called livestock groups together and asked, “Why can’t you get along?” The outcome appeared to be less than satisfying and may have influenced the administration’s decision to stand with the COOL law, since no position would satisfy all interests.
It seems the meat industry is asking for a double standard in accountability. We know where our clothing was made, where machines were assembled and where vegetables and fish were harvested. Why should the origin of meat be excluded from mandatory compliance? We have had a sizable number of E. coli scares that made headlines and began a process of identifying premises where animals are raised. It seems logical that labeling would be part of the process to allow grocers and government track back to the source of a problem. Under this scenario, the individual meat producer would be accountable and liable. What is the packer’s view of that outcome?
I’ve always been puzzled by NCBA positions on meat packer issues. The cattle industry goes to great lengths to accommodate packers when the two are natural adversaries in the marketplace. I haven’t seen any occasion where packers, or the American Meat Institute, returned the favor. U.S. cattle producers believe that their animals are raised in a manner that exceeds the quality standards of Mexico, but NCBA indicates Mexican sourced animals or beef should not be identified as such to the U.S. consumer. Canada gave us multiple cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, so why don’t we want to know that an animal originated north of the border?
This may all be moot as it appears any dispute winds up in court. Federal jurists will decide whether California can impose its standards on agricultural products coming from other states, and the WTO will decide whether Country of Origin Labeling for meat is discriminatory. Last question: If it is found to be discrimination, does that set a precedent for repeal of regulations on fish, fruits, nuts and shirts?
Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 39 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or send mail for him to High Plains Journal.