By Laurel Maloy, contributing writer, Food Online
Having been debated since 2002 — when the first wording for mandatory Country of Origin Labeling was introduced into the U.S. Farm Bill — its critics have not stopped fighting for its downturn
Country of Origin Labeling (COOL), sometimes referred to as mCOOL, with the m standing for mandatory, has little to do with food safety, according to the USDA. In fact, the USDA also says it has nothing to do with traceability, calling it solely a consumer information program. Labeling, indeed, may have little to do directly with food safety, until such time as DNA barcoding becomes a fact of life. However, it can be argued — knowing where raw meat and poultry originates, and then where it is raised and processed — has everything to do with traceability.
American processors are split when it comes to supporting the COOL labeling requirements. One very vocal detractor is the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. At the same time, Canadian and Mexican meat producers are claiming the COOL rule blatantly discriminates against them. It is true that some processors have stopped purchasing some forms of meat from other countries. For example, Tyson announced in Oct of last year it would stop buying slaughter-ready Canadian cattle, citing the additional costs COOL labeling entails. In the same announcement, though, Tyson said it would continue to buy Canadian feeder cattle finished for slaughter in U.S. feedlots. Both Canada and Mexico also claim to have lost revenue as a result of COOL labeling, which is likely, especially with the push to buy “Made in America” products and the fear of contracting Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).
White Paper: Traceability — Solving The Imperative Of Compliance
Consumer groups, regardless of what the USDA says, feel COOL is all about food safety. As far back as 2004, prior to mandatory COOL labeling, the discovery of BSE, mad cow disease had a negative effect on the U.S. cattle market. The discovery, in a cow in Washington and believed to have been imported from Canada, resulted in a 20 percent decline in the cash-cattle market. One estimate is that U.S. producers lost approximately $27 million per day, as U.S. consumers responded to the find by cutting back on beef consumption.
The Japanese and South Korean markets were asking for COOL labeling, as the U.S. House of Representatives voted in Sept 2004 to postpone its implementation for two years. At the time, meat packers and grocery stores were opposed due to the high costs of a new labeling system. Many were citing the costs and logistical problems associated with segregating the meat prior to processing. Under old COOL rules, only the countries had to be mentioned on the label. There was no requirement for specificity in regards to birth, raising, and slaughtering. These are the new COOL rule requirements, with the label stating specifically where it is born, raised and slaughtered:
This meat is from animals going from birth to packaging in the U.S. It also covers animals in the U.S. on or before July 15, 2008.
- Product of the U.S. and Country X and Country Y
This meat is from animals born in countries X or Y, but were raised and slaughtered in the U.S. (if applicable)
- Product of Country X and U.S.
This is meat from live animals imported to the U.S. for immediate slaughter
This is meat or poultry born, raised, and slaughtered in a foreign country, and then imported for sale in the U.S. market
Last autumn, these new COOL labeling requirements went into effect. Canadian livestock producers say these most recent changes will add even more financial strain to an already struggling market. And the debate goes on! Granted, all meat sold in the U.S. is inspected by the USDA. This is why the American Meat Institute (AMI) challenged the existing laws in U.S. courts, on behalf of American, Canadian and Mexican meat producers. The decision, handed down by the U.S. Court of Appeals on Jul 29, 2014, upholds the current COOL rules.
Concurrently, the World Trade Organization (WTO) has weighed in. In a series of hearings, which kicked off in Feb of this year, the WTO was tasked with determining if the most recent changes to COOL brought it into line with international trade rules. While enforcement of the rule is still developing, the WTO has also responded to complaints filed by meat producers in Canada and Mexico. The WTO is said to have issued its findings to all interested parties. The results are expected to remain under wraps until this fall, giving both domestic and international meat producers ample opportunity to formulate a new strategy to derail COOL.
White Paper: From Pasture To Plate
In the meantime, 112 members of Congress have signed a letter to Tom Vilsack, Agriculture Secretary. The letter asks, that in the event the WTO finds COOL non-compliant, that Congress be prepared to act. The letter further urges Congress to take seriously the protection of the American economy and the relationship with our trading partners while formulating a viable solution.
The ongoing debate promises to be a matter of dollars and cents; shouldn’t it also be a matter of dollars and sense? If we must depend upon imports to feed our country; if producers must turn to a foreign market in order to stay competitive — shouldn’t there also be a responsibility to know exactly what meat, from where, is going where? Maybe COOL has a lot more to do with food safety than anyone is willing to admit.