Voluntary COOL – What Is In It For Us?
By Gilles Stockton
The argument for supporting the Stabenow/Hoeven proposal for a voluntary Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) program reduces to – if we do not support voluntary COOL we will have nothing to show for the years of effort. That may be so, but we already have nearly nothing to show for the effort to enact a workable COOL law. The opponents of COOL have repeatedly pointed out that since COOL has actually been the law of the land, consumers have not responded with more demand for U.S. born, raised, and slaughtered beef.
I know that many people might cringe at my admission that this is probably true. But the reason why this is true is really very simple – no one can read the miniscule print. If consumers can’t see the information provided, how can they respond? But, this also puts the lie to Canada’s claim for 3.6 billion dollar in reparations. The opponents of COOL cannot have it both ways. If consumers have not responded to the COOL label, then Canada and Mexico cannot have experienced the harm. This is what Dr. Robert Taylor of Auburn University discovered when he analyzed the actual trade data.
We also need to look at what the World Trade Organization (WTO) has actually said about our COOL law. They uphold our right to mandate labeling but they object to our wording and implementation. This is totally contradictory. How can a label that treats U.S., Canadian, and Mexican product exactly alike be discriminatory. Of course the WTO tribunal’s rules and reasoning are not meant to be understood by us mere mortals and subjects. One rule appears to be that conflicts of interest by the individual tribunal judges is not a reason for a judge to recuse himself. The head judge for the COOL ruling is a Mexican national who works for the Mexican government. I have often been disappointed in the findings of the U.S. courts, but at least I tell myself that I know the rules and that as a citizen of this country I have a voice – perhaps not much of a voice, but nonetheless a voice. With WTO, I neither know the rules nor have a voice.
Finally, we need to consider why the opponents of COOL are so adamant that it shall not exist. After all, if it is as I suspect that no harm or good has resulted because of the COOL label, it must be about the future. U.S. beef production is not keeping up with demand, resulting in excellent feeder cattle prices and lower profits in feeding and retailing. Soon, because the WTO has so ordered and USDA has acquiesced, we will be importing beef from areas of South America that has endemic Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD). Never mind that this trade will put the U.S. livestock industry at a risk of an FMD epidemic that could cost hundreds of millions to combat.
The biggest Beef Packer, JBS, a Brazilian firm with connections to the Brazilian government is in a position to profit from the expanded trade. Furthermore, a Chinese company with connections to the Chinese government recently purchased Smithfield, the biggest pork producer and processor in the U.S. Finally, the USDA has said that it will allow poultry raised and slaughtered in the U.S. to be shipped to China to be processed and then re-imported and marketed in the U.S. Because these facilities in South America and China are presumed to be equivalent to those in the U.S., there will be no on-going inspection by USDA. Without COOL, consumers will not be able to distinguish where their meat was sourced or processed. It looks to me that a perfect storm is coming our way.
So what exactly will we be getting by supporting voluntary COOL? I cannot speak to the motivation of Senators Stabenow and Hoeven. Perhaps they honestly see this as a win. The cynical part of me tells me that it is all about plausible deniability. They and their colleagues will be able to tell their constituencies that they tried to do the best that could be done. Before writing this rambling commentary, I wanted to read the proposed voluntary COOL draft. I could not find it on either Senator Stabenow’s nor Senator Hoeven’s websites, which makes me wonder just how really committed they are. Given the power of the forces aligned to kill COOL, we should also consider how realistic it is that a “compromise” to pass a voluntary program would be. We could be asking for nearly nothing and receive absolutely nothing in return, and no member of Congress would have had to have made any real commitment over anything of importance. So is voluntary COOL worth the fight or is it better to draw a line and stand up for the right of consumers to know and for producers to differentiate their product?
We have been told that it is naïve and futile to oppose the WTO and since our country has already entered into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) along with other trade agreements and realistically, a few nay-sayers and protestors will not change this fact. In having ratified these trade treaties, our country is allowing an unelected, essentially secret international organization to overrule U.S. law. I understand how international trade should have rules. It, therefore, follows that there needs to be a mechanism to determine those rules. But is the proper mechanism a non-elected body to which we as citizens of the U.S.A. have no knowledge or access? The citizens of this country have never had an opportunity to really debate this issue. Isn’t now the time, given that the President and the Republican leadership of Congress are united in promoting a new and larger trade treaty with the Pacific rim nations? If this proposed trade treaty does not redress WTO’s has the authority to overturn a constitutionally passed law like COOL, then why should we be in favor of entering into an expanded trade regime? It is a fundamental issue of the sovereignty of this country and our rights as citizens as guaranteed in the Constitution.
Then, too, we have the question of why voluntary COOL is unworkable? There is no need for a law to allow meat packers or grocery stores to voluntarily slap a “born, raised, and processed in the U.S.A.” label on a package of beef steaks. In a competitive market, someone undoubtedly will do so. But we do not have a competitive market in the livestock industry and that is the whole point. Livestock production and packing is not the only industry in this country that has concentrated to the point where its market system is non-transparent and non-competitive. Just off the top of my head I can name: the print, radio, and television media; banking; telecommunications; cable and satellite entertainment; airlines; air plane manufacturing; railroads, computer software; health insurance; pharmaceuticals; power generation; oil industry; retail groceries … and the list goes on. For free enterprise to function efficiently, it requires markets that are transparent and competitive. For over a hundred years we’ve had laws that address market concentration and non-competiveness. We have chosen to not employ those laws. This is the key mistake that needs to be reversed if we are to have a vibrant economy once again.
The argument over supporting voluntary COOL is at its core a confusion of means with ends. COOL is a means to give us the freedom as consumers to know where our food comes from and what is in it; the freedom as livestock producers to differentiate our product in a competitive marketplace; and finally the freedom as citizens to democratically decide how we wish to govern ourselves. Voluntary COOL does not achieve any of those ends because as someone else pointed out – packers will not use it, the consumers will not see it, and the producers will not benefit from it. Perhaps this ending to my commentary is getting corny and repetitive, but I still say that we want a mandatory COOL label in a font than anyone can see and read that says:
Born Raised And Processed In The U.S.A.
Grass Range, MT