Steve Foglesong, Policy Division chairman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), penned a letter to Congress this week asking legislators to take action to fix the problems associated with the current country-of-origin labeling (COOL) law. NCBA has continually pushed for adjustments to the law to make it more workable, but with implementation just over a year away (September 2008), the time is growing extremely short.
Foglesong's letter highlighted some of the major flaws of the current law, the first being that poultry -- beef's biggest competitor -- is exempted from the law. The issue is that when you add costs and regulatory burdens to your product without placing the same on your top competitor, you're institutionalizing a competitive advantage for that competitor.
A second issue is that certain retailers are exempted from COOL, as well as the entire hotel, restaurant and institutional (HRI) trade. More than 50% of beef consumed in the U.S. is consumed at HRI outlets. In fact, the overwhelming majority of imported product goes through the HRI trade. Thus, the industry will incur enormous costs for labeling while practically all the imported beef is exempt. Plus, once COOL is in effect, the trend likely will accelerate.
Of course, the most frustrating part of the COOL legislation is it puts the burden on retailers to prove the product comes from animals born in the U.S. Essentially that means all the burden will fall on U.S. cattle producers and not on the imported product.
There are a ton of additional side issues in this regard, like the fact there's no exemption or grandfather clause for cattle born prior to 2008. A percentage of the calves born this spring will be marketed under mandatory COOL but -- with the final rules yet to be published -- we don't know exactly what type of information must be collected.
NCBA is also concerned that its efforts to prevent mandatory animal ID will be thwarted by the COOL legislation, as the packing and retail industry appear to be aligning themselves to require ID to comply with COOL. There's also concern that others will continue to try and make COOL a food-safety issue, a purpose for which it was never intended; nor does it have a place in the food-safety debate.
The problem the cattle industry faces is that the debate isn't about COOL. It's largely a debate over whether government should interfere in the marketplace, or if the marketplace should be allowed to respond to consumer wishes based on a free enterprise capitalist model. COOL is also a political hot-button issue that became the rallying cry for an internal power struggle in the industry. The collapse of R-CALF hasn't diminished the political nature of this law, and there's little incentive for the activist groups to press for fixes to the legislation.
Meanwhile, Democrat presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and John Edwards called for COOL implementation. This on the heels of a report this week from Consumer Reports magazine that 92% of respondents to its June 7-10 telephone poll of 1,004 Americans said they want to know the origin of the food they buy. Consumer Reports is published by Consumers Union.