Opinion: It's not just consumers in the U.S. who demand to know where their food comes from

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By Roger Johnson, National Farmers Union

A few years ago European politicians got an earful when their constituents learned that they were walking around with a stomachful -- of horsemeat. Meat from horses labeled as beef was being imported into the European Union (EU), and since strict labeling laws were not in place in one of the world's most lucrative markets, consumers were tricked into eating something very different than they thought!

The backlash to this scandal and the thought that consumers in Europe had no idea what they had actually been putting on dinner tables led to a new law mandating that unprocessed meats carry a label telling the consumer exactly where the product was born, raised and slaughtered. With great applause from the continent's consumers, that law went into effect on April 1, 2015.   

Lets Talk Food

European consumers, it seems, are as demanding as their American counterparts across the pond who asked for, and received, a country of origin labeling (COOL) law in 2008.  Unfortunately, COOL has been challenged by our largest trading competitors - Canada and Mexico - at the World Trade Organization (WTO.)

The announcement from the WTO on this lawsuit is due in just weeks, and we may win.  If not, it can still be brought to arbitration. And that's why it's important that Congress refrain from making any changes to the popular labeling law until this  process has run its course. To do otherwise would not only be unprecedented in U.S. history, but would also be a disservice to consumers who support COOL by a margin of 90 percent, according to decade's worth of polling.

The next step in the arbitration process, should the WTO rule against America's consumers and producers in May, is that Canada and Mexico can retaliate against U.S.  But the level of retaliation can be subject to arbitration, if requested by the U.S.  The level of arbitration is limited to the adverse effects on Canadian and Mexican exports to the U.S.  

Proving COOL has caused economic harm is going to be no small feat for Canada, given the recent study out of Auburn University that found it was the economic collapse of 2008 - not COOL - that caused a dip in their cattle exports to the U.S.

Like elsewhere, COOL is extremely popular in the U.S., with both consumers and producers. COOL is a good law because it's just common sense that consumers want to know as much as possible about what they are putting into their mouths, and the mouths of their children. And since nearly everything in our daily lives is labeled, from our coat to our appliances to our automotive parts, it just makes common sense that food should be too.

Maybe consumers prefer to eat locally grown, or maybe they prefer imported.   But whatever their choice, the point is that the product needs to be labeled in order for them to make that distinction. Of course, many consumers like the idea of buying American, which not only supports our own farm sector and rural economy, but also keeps money in the country. There's nothing wrong with that.

The other side of the equation is the perspective of American producers, who strongly support COOL because they are proud of what they produce. After all, we have the most productive and efficient agriculture sector in the world, and it's producing the safest, most nutritious food available anywhere. Why wouldn't they want to have their name on the product?

So here we are with a popular labeling law that is currently being enforced, but will likely be stuck in legal limbo for some time, waiting for a final decision. The WTO is ultimately a political body and the global political environment is clearly shifting towards more information for consumers, not less, so in the end, pressure will mount within the WTO to recognize and accept the rights of consumers to the increased information provided by COOL.

Until then, Congress needs to keep its hands off COOL.

Roger Johnson is president of National Farmers Union.

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