Thursday, June 21, 2007

COOL Idea: Knowing Where Our Food Comes From

That tomato you ate last week -- do you know if it was grown in the United States?
Ever wonder why meat at the grocery store doesn't always have a label to tell you where the animal was raised?
Such details are expected next year, when mandatory country-of-origin labeling is implemented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- as long as Congress and President Bush don't delay the law again.

The country-of-origin labeling law -- known by the memorable acronym "COOL" -- was passed by Congress and signed by President Bush more than five years ago as a part of the 2002 Farm Bill.
But COOL was never implemented, and shoppers are left to wonder where their food was grown. Under the law, the USDA is supposed to require labeling on retail food products such as fruits and vegetables, beef, pork, lamb, fish and peanuts.

But food processors and meat packers protested, and implementation of the law was delayed until 2006 for all commodities except wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish. Then Bush signed a law in 2005 that delayed implementation until September 2008.

Since the original bill was enacted, some in Congress have pushed for voluntary labeling instead of mandatory. This effort was led by the Meat and Poultry Promotion Coalition, which represents several trade groups.

An advertisement running today on WHO Radio asks "What will mandatory country-of-origin labeling mean to the pork industry?" The ad directs listeners to visit www.countryoforiginlabel.org, the website operated by the Meat and Poultry Promotion Coalition. The ad says "this isn't good news for pork producers. Costs will increase, but revenue won't," and tells listeners "the time to act is now. Contact your lawmakers, tell them to fix country-of-origin labeling."

In a telephone interview with Iowa Independent, a spokesman for the National Meat Association -- a member of the coalition -- said that his organization continues to oppose COOL, but is no longer actively lobbying for changes to the law.

"Our stance on COOL is that it's a bad law that adds tremendous costs, with no tangible benefits," said Jeremy Russell, communications director for the NMA. "It was really written as an anti-import law rather than to provide information to consumers." He said that his organization worked with the Meat and Poultry Promotion Coalition to lobby for a change to the law last year, but those changes did not pass. Now, he said, the coalition is trying to find "workable and economically viable labeling options."
Russell said that one of the difficulties is that the law actually prohibits a national animal-identification system, something he says is necessary to make the labeling law workable.
Russell is not convinced that the labeling system is going to work under the current law. "It's just going to be a train wreck," he said. Russell explained that there are serious flaws in the law that will result in large numbers of livestock that will be virtually "unmarketable." Many livestock animals have no form of proof that they were born and raised in the United States, and therefore their owners will be unable to sell them once the law takes effect.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association is also opposed to the law, but historically has supported labeling initiatives. In 1997, the NCBA board of directors met and adopted policy favoring country-of-origin labeling, but the group changed its position over time. Now the group says the law will place an undue burden on producers and disrupt the market for beef products. Colin Woodall, executive director of legislative affairs for the NCBA, said on Thursday that his organization is now focusing its efforts with Congress to find a workable way to implement COOL. "We understand the dynamics of this new Congress," said Woodall. "There is no way we can defeat COOL, so we will try to find a way to make it work."

Woodall said one of the problems with the law involves the fact that it does not cover food service sales. "Almost 50 percent of American consumers' expenditures on beef are in food services like restaurants, and that is not even covered under COOL," said Woodall.

On the other side of the debate, the National Farmers Union has led the efforts to implement the law and has been working in Washington to ensure the law goes into effect without any changes.
The law has been supported by Democrats and Republicans in the past, including Iowa's Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley and Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin.
Grassley was asked about the possibility of changes to the law in a May 28 news conference. Ken Root of WHO Radio asked Grassley if he was being lobbied by groups. "No, I have not been lobbied on that," said Grassley. But, he added, "There probably has been some lobbying going on in that direction."

Grassley said that he would be willing to look at some changes, but only if "people are willing to accept the concept that consumers ought to know where their food comes from -- just like they do if their clothes are imported."

Harkin, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, obviously has a lot of influence on the fate of COOL. He said Wednesday that he is not planning any changes to the current law.
"We have come to a time where we really do need to know where all our food is coming from," Harkin told Iowa Independent. "I'm sure there will be some efforts to water down or repeal COOL, so it's important the focus remain on keeping COOL intact in the new farm bill but also keeping the pressure on USDA to write a common-sense and workable final rule."

Just last Friday, the USDA reopened its period for public comments on its final rules for implementation of COOL. Comments can be submitted online at www.regulations.gov.

1 comment:

Henwhisperer said...

Oh boo hoo hoo for the big boys. Now they know how we feel about NAIS (National Animal Identification System). Personally, COOL is the way to go, that way this country can stop buying meat from the global market if it wants to.

http://nonais.org