Country of Origin Labeling: A full fix means full repeal

Published on Tue, 07/07/2015 - 3:36pm

Philip Ellis, NCBA President 

For far too long U.S. cattle producers have grappled with the burdensome and onerous mandatory Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) rule and now the entire economy is about to be pulled into this fight. This rule has already cost cattle producers an estimated $8.07 billion, without any corresponding benefit. It is simply a failed legislative marketing experiment that has brought us to the brink of retaliation from our two largest trading partners, Canada and Mexico.

As a cattle producer myself, I am certain America raises the best beef in the world and I support programs that give consumers choices and information. In fact, the U.S. beef industry has any number of voluntary programs, certified by the Department of Agriculture, that give consumers information they want and bring money back to producers for meeting certain demands. These are programs run by producers that have relationships with retailers and consumers, programs like Certified Angus Beef, Laura’s Lean Beef, or Safeway’s own program called Rancher’s Reserve.

A mandatory labeling program run by the federal government is not the way to market our beef. It does not bring any value to either ranchers or consumers. Now, that’s not to say that labeling programs don’t work, but government-mandated labels — dull plain print without any context or guarantee — don’t work. When was the last time you noticed the COOL label while you were in the meat case? Simply slapping on a label that says where this product was born, raised and slaughtered may pose as marketing, but without any added benefit, it’s simply a cost.

On top of adding unnecessary costs, COOL violates our international trade obligations by discriminating against livestock from our largest trading partners. Canada and Mexico combined account for over $2 billion in U.S. beef exports annually; one-third of all U.S. beef exports and total, U.S. exports to Canada and Mexico amount to over $597 billion annually. These are our largest trading partners, not just for beef, but for the entire U.S. economy. Following the latest decision by the WTO, without action by Congress, Canada and Mexico will be awarded retaliatory tariffs once damages are proven. We have a lot to lose here and nothing to gain in defending this rule.

It’s vitally important to remember that this isn’t about food safety, in fact within the USDA, COOL is run by the Agriculture Marketing Service, not the Food Safety Inspection Service. We all want safe food, and thanks to the hard work of the USDA we have safe food. In order to import beef into the U.S., foreign countries must first petition for the privilege. Once a country has requested access, they must meet equivalency standards, meaning their food safety systems must be equal to or greater than our domestic standards based on an in-person assessment and subject to continual review. And then once they are cleared for import, that product must be labeled where it was processed. That’s totally independent of COOL, and completely unaffected by current legislation to repeal this flawed law.

It’s time to let COOL go before retaliation takes place.

Philip Ellis is a fifth-generation rancher who stewards a commercial cow-calf operation in Bear Creek Valley in southeast Wyoming. Philip has been involved in the cattle industry for many years and has served in various leadership roles. He has been active at the state level in the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and nationally, serving on the NCBA Board of Directors and the Ag Policy Committee. Ellis was the Region V Vice President, President Elect and is now currently serving as the President.