Unfortunately, mandatory Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) – the popular consumer food labeling law that identifies the national origin of meat, poultry and many fruits, vegetables and nuts in the U.S. – is a dead man walking.  

 After surviving numerous attacks by the multi-national meatpackers in U.S. courts, the law has lost its final appeal at the World Trade Organization (WTO), where Canada and Mexico, with support from the multi-national meat packing industry, charged that COOL was undermining their meat exports to the U.S. and costing them lots of money.  

 As a direct result of the WTO ruling and the mounting pressure from Canada and Mexico’s unsubstantiated threats, the U.S. House of Representatives recently voted to repeal COOL altogether, despite the fact that consumers have clearly demonstrated their desire to buy locally.  Now, all eyes are on the Senate. Thankfully, a strong bipartisan compromise was introduced last week by Senators Hoeven and Stabenow that provides a path forward for COOL.  

 For those who champion food labeling, this is the only game in town. The bill is the only politically viable means of preventing Congress from completely stripping away a clear national label for livestock born, raised, and slaughtered in the U.S.  It mandates the development of a clear, strong and honest “made in the USA” label that we know consumers want.  And it defangs the WTO ruling by making the law voluntary, not mandatory. Consumers win, producers win, our trading partners win and the WTO ruling becomes a moot point.   

Yes, international trade laws are being used to overturn a very popular domestic food policy, and we don’t like that.  But that is the reality of the world we live in and something that we should all consider before rushing into future trade agreements.

 Canada and Mexico both suggested the adoption of a voluntary system in the 2012 WTO Appellate Body Report, and the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) noted that repealing the mandatory requirement and replacing it with a voluntary system has the "potential to constitute compliance with U.S. WTO obligations.”  That gives voluntary COOL a green light in every direction.

 National Farmers Union (NFU) has championed mandatory COOL for three decades, so this clearly wasn’t an easy pill to swallow.  But it is the only way to retain some semblance of clear and accurate food labeling that allows consumers to know where their food comes from, and it offers farmers and ranchers an avenue to allow that to happen.   

 Of course, the repeated beatings that COOL received at the WTO have opened the door for those who have always opposed food labeling in the Senate to lead the charge for complete repeal.  In fact, a bill sponsored by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts would repeal COOL completely and allow packers to determine their own definition of what a product of the U.S. is. The multinational meat packers would undoubtedly use it to go back to deceiving consumers into believing that foreign meat was a product of the U.S. when it is not. The Hoeven-Stabenow alternative would prevent those packers from such deceptive practices by requiring that in order for any meat to be labeled as product of the U.S. that meat must be from an animal that was born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S.

COOL is one of our organization’s signature issues, and we have spent tens of thousands of dollars defending it in the courts and educating the public about the benefits of knowing where your food comes from. And it will remain one of our top priorities until the optional labeling law is finalized and these new labels are being used on meat products across the country.  

 Yes, as hard as it is to say, mandatory COOL is dead, and is simply awaiting its final burial.  Thankfully, many of us see the bright light at the end of the tunnel, and that light says voluntary labeling.  And everyone who wants to preserve food labeling is walking in that direction.

Roger Johnson is president of National Farmers Union
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