Mandatory country of origin labeling (COOL) of meat and other foods is one of those issues that goes on and on and on. I wrote my first story about proposals to introduce COOL in 1994. The measure was finally implemented in 2009, but the battle over COOL continues three years later.
That’s because Canada, later joined by Mexico, initiated a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO). There was a strong possibility WTO would rule against certain aspects of COOL, which it did with its formal ruling last November. Now the battle is over what livestock and other groups might accept, or not accept, to allow the U.S. to comply with its WTO obligations.
Almost immediately after the WTO ruling, the word was that the U.S. Trade Representative’s (USTR) Office was keen to settle the case and not appeal (it has until March 23 to decide). But this means the Obama administration will have to work with Congress to amend the COOL law.
But, any attempt at compliance through changing COOL’s regulations won’t satisfy WTO. And the U.S. is unlikely to ignore the WTO ruling and risk retaliatory sanctions by Canada and Mexico, its two most important beef export markets. The House of Representatives is ready to proceed with such an amendment, but there currently isn’t such support in the Senate.
The aspect of COOL that WTO took particular issue with is the enforced segregation of imported livestock and meat. But there are divergent views among COOL opponents as to how far to go to remedy the issue.
Canada wants any remedy to eliminate the segregation of both livestock and meat that are processed and further processed, respectively, in the U.S. Thus, these would all be labeled as “Product of the U.S.” This resolution would require a surgical amendment only and not a complete repeal of COOL, says the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA).
CCA, though, says it can’t accept an outcome that places a so-called “residency requirement” on Canadian cattle prior to slaughter in the U.S. Since two-thirds to three-quarters of Canada’s live-cattle exports are for immediate slaughter, a residency requirement would do little to improve the situation for Canadian cattle producers, it says. CCA says COOL has affected Canadian fed cattle prices by $48/head (US).
U.S. mainstream producer groups are likely to support the first option above but only as it relates to livestock. Conversely, meat trade groups oppose segregating imported meat that is further processed in the U.S., and they want to be allowed to label it as “Product of the U.S.” Their argument is that WTO’s ruling regarding segregation applies equally to livestock and meat, and any change shouldn’t differentiate between the two.
COOL supporters such as the National Farmers Union and R-CALF USA strongly oppose any changes to the current COOL law. But observers say their opposition is unlikely to sway USTR, even though they have support from 19 U.S. senators. The senators, led by Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Mike Enzi (R-WY), in December called on USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and USTR’s Ron Kirk to appeal the WTO decision.
The fact that consumer awareness of COOL is low might encourage the U.S. government not to appeal. A 2011 survey conducted by USDA asked if people knew retailers were required to list the country of origin on meat labels. Nearly six of 10 people didn’t know and only 30% responded “yes.”
More telling is that six of 10 people said they never look at the country of origin on labels. It’s ironic that the battle over COOL continues when many consumers couldn’t care less about the labeling. At this time of record-high retail prices, consumers’ main concern is if they can afford to buy beef.