Few things have done as much harm to the U.S. beef industry as the debate over mandatory country-of-origin labeling (mCOOL). I’m not speaking of the rule itself, but the debate over the rule.
The mCOOL debate has become a never-ending battle that just keeps getting worse. What’s ironic is that, despite all the time, wasted political capital, and mini-industry created as a result of the impasse, the law itself hasn’t had a significant effect – either positive or negative – on the industry.
The storyline surrounding mCOOL would be funny if we weren’t at the center of the joke. As you might recall, the original legislation was thrown into the farm bill at the last hour with virtually no discussion. It was a gesture to provide election help to a very small number of Republican candidates looking for support from the vegetable industry.
All sides agree the law was poorly written and poorly conceived. And, as widely predicted, the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled it violated U.S. trade obligations under the WTO. Then came the implementation stage, and what resulted in the rulemaking process was even worse, as the compromise produced a watered-down version that didn’t add significant costs but also didn’t achieve the goal of labeling the product.
When the WTO ruling went against the U.S., the expectation was that mCOOL would be significantly changed. But it just kept getting worse. USDA’s revised rule was a tremendous victory for mCOOL proponents in that it actually moved closer to the goal of labeling the product according to country of origin. It essentially eliminated mixing of product, which had been the norm in our industry for quite some time.
In the cattle industry, we tend to think of mCOOL as it relates to whole-muscle cuts, but the real issue has always been about hamburger/ground beef. Of course the new rule is finally bringing the debate to a head, and that might just be a good thing, regardless of which side of the issue you fall.
Several weeks ago, the larger industry associations filed suit, seeking an injunction against implementation of the rule. Other groups announced they would seek intervener status in support of the rule. Of course, all the legal wrangling will play out, but there’s little debate about what the WTO’s final response will be, as USDA didn’t address the issues raised by the WTO rulings. In fact, USDA was defiant in actually moving in the other direction.
The issue is now very real, and we’re looking at major and significant economic ramifications. It’s a debate that needs to happen because the issue needs resolution in order for people to manage the major changes that could occur. The sad reality, however, is that mCOOL has become something much greater than an actual labeling law; it’s now the lifeblood of industry division. Meanwhile, the assortment of industry associations that have sprung up to maintain that division, or that exist because of it, have a vested interest in keeping the issue alive.
It’s not uncommon for political opponents to mischaracterize and lie about the opposition’s position. The tragic thing about mCOOL is that the groups that exist because of the division are working to link the checkoff to mCOOL.
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Most cattlemen understand that the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s Checkoff Division and the Policy Division are two separate beasts. Yet the checkoff continues to be attacked despite it being well understood that checkoff dollars haven’t been, nor will they be, used to advance either side of this debate.
It’s a red herring, but like the class warfare our two major political parties have engaged in for years, it serves the purpose of maintaining a wall of anger and distrust within the industry. It’s time for the industry to recognize that supporting these organizations with a primary role of promoting industry division is counterproductive. We have too much in common to follow this route. Our industry should not morph into a miniature version of what happens in the Washington Beltway.
I’m not saying that real issues don’t exist, or that there aren’t substantive disagreements on a few of them, but the current rhetoric is mostly political and intended to do nothing but keep us divided. The industry must acknowledge the damage this division is creating; then we need to get everyone together under one roof to debate the issues, take the votes, and then all ride for the brand together.
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