Buffalo Meat for Sale

It’s split the food business, it’s split ranchers and it’s split Congress, but the rash of tainted products coming into the U.S. — and the ascendance of Democratic leadership — just may be pushing “country of origin labeling” closer to reality.

Not only country of origin, but city and ranch, too.
Photo by Newrambler

The New York Times Monday and the Chicago Tribune earlier have both written stories finding that country of origin labeling (COOL) is being revived in the muggy Washington, D.C. summer. The Tribune’s story was headlined, “Food Origin Bill is Back From Oblivion.”

The COOL provisions were originally passed in the 2002 Farm Bill and required food labels to list where a product originated. The law was lobbied against, sidetracked, shelved and eventually postponed until 2008, after heavy opposition from food industry groups and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. But the National Farmers Union and R-CALF — the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund — have been waging a range war to make COOL effective sooner.

The spate of stories about tainted imports (dog food, mad cow, toothpaste) has made COOL cool again. And the change in congressional leadership hasn’t hurt COOL either. Republican Henry Bonilla, chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Agriculture, lost his seat and the Republicans lost their majority. Bonilla opposed COOL.

Now Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (Democrat of Connecticut) chairs that committee and she supports COOL. “There will be mandatory COOL by 2008 at the latest,” Rep. DeLauro told the Tribune. “I believe that this is the direction we’re moving in. This is about consumers and their ability to make marketplace decisions.”

Rep. Rosa DeLauro at a hearing held during the National Rural Assembly in June. Rep. Marion Berry of Arkansas listens.

Photo by M.A. Pember

Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro

The COOL fight has been between two sets of cattle raisers. The more populist National Farmers Union and R-CALF — strong in the upper Plains — is opposed by the meat industry and some traditional farm groups. They have been waging an ideological battle over COOL, arguing about the limits of government and the effects of global markets.

In a letter that went to beef and pork producers in late June — and posted on R-CALF’s website — the American Meat Institute wrote that “mandatory COOL stands to erode the profitability of cattle producers nationwide.” The AMI told ranchers that COOL was anti-free trade and was “for those misguided few who believe that building a wall to imports is good long-term strategy. They are wrong.” The AMI also published an ad in a Capital Hill newspaper opposing COOL.

(The “let the consumer decide” argument is made here. R-CALF has a complete COOL page here.)

Anti COOL ad by American Meat Institute

The COOL fight will no doubt become part of both the Farm Bill debate later in July and the presidential campaign. (COOL is important to consumer groups.) Sen. Hillary Clinton sent out a press release in mid-June where she “called for action to force the USDA to properly implement COOL.” Clinton also demanded oversight hearings on the issue.

Portion of anti-COOL advertisement produced by the American Meat Institute in June.

A supporter of John Edwards in Missouri said the former Democratic senator from North Carolina also supported COOL. “He’s for country-of-origin labeling,” said Missouri State Sen. John Shoemyer. “When folks go to the store and buy dog bones, the country of origin is stated on the label. But if they buy hamburger, it can be commingled with imported meat.”

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