By KEVIN WALKER
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Different cattle producer groups continue to spar over mandatory country of origin labeling (MCOOL).
MCOOL has nothing to do with food safety, but is strictly a marketing tool, said Colin Woodall, vice president of government affairs at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Assoc. (NCBA). The NCBA is opposed to MCOOL, but isn’t necessarily opposed to voluntary labeling efforts.
The COOL issue at hand is only about how certain commodities are labeled in the United States, as well. It has nothing to do with exports. “Our concern is because of the impact it has on U.S. producers,” Woodall said. “It’s not just Mexican and Canadian producers that are affected, it’s U.S. producers, too.”
He opined the consumer isn’t paying much attention to from where their beef is coming. The labels “aren’t providing any value. We’re not against labeling as a whole, we’re just against the government telling us how to do it.”
MCOOL is a product of the 2008 farm bill and, to some extent, earlier legislation. MCOOL requires the mandatory labeling of meat packaged for retail sales. According to the NCBA, the beef industry has worked for years to develop livestock production practices that promote safety.
Those, in addition to government regulations already in place, ensure the safety of beef sold in the United States, the group contends.
The World Trade Organization (WTO) appellate court ruled although the United States has the right to a COOL program, the way in which the MCOOL program is currently configured creates an unfair trade balance in violation of international trade laws. It’s being contended that today, Canadian and Mexican beef producers are being paid less for their product because of MCOOL.
According to the NCBA, Mexican and Canadian cattle producers are at a competitive disadvantage because of the U.S. program. In December 2012, the WTO announced the United States had until May 23, 2013, to change its COOL program for red meat or face retaliatory tariffs from Canada and Mexico.
In its literature, the NCBA states in some instances Mexican producers are being paid $60 less per head of cattle because of where that cattle originated. The USDA published a final rule on MCOOL on May 24 to help the United States come into compliance with WTO rules, but Woodall said it does no such thing – and the NCBA sued to try to stop implementation of the final rule.
“We asked the court to shut down implementation of the new rule, because USDA is causing us to spend money on something that the WTO might reject,” he said. “We think the WTO will rule against it.”
According to the group, the cost of complying with the new rule could be in excess of $100 million, in the form of increased tracking of animals and increased costs of physically printing and attaching labels.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, includes the NCBA, American Meat Institute and several other groups as plaintiffs. They are asking the court to rule against the defendant, USDA, mainly because of the cost to the industry – but also on constitutional as well as a number of technical grounds.
Other groups insist consumers do want to know where their beef was born and raised. Leo McDonnell, director emeritus of the United States Cattlemen’s Assoc. (USCA), for example, said of the lawsuit, “Consumers very much want to know where their food comes from. Basically every poll shows a strong preference on the part of consumers for knowing the source of their beef.”
He also said it’s interesting that the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) finds “a lot of value in promoting U.S. beef, as opposed to North American beef. We’re not sure the USMEF differentiates between U.S. and North American beef, however.”
About the COOL issue as it relates to the WTO, McDonnell said neither Canada nor Mexico have tried to appeal the latest COOL rules.
“Instead, they tried to stop the rule in its tracks with a lawsuit,” he said. “It raises a few red flags. I think it raises concerns on their part that it is compliant. I don’t understand why Canada and Mexico wouldn’t want to identify their product. It’s good for everybody.
“We’ve been accused of wanting to block trade, but we’ve never wanted to block trade. COOL was never meant to put up a barrier to trade.”
The group is in the midst of a fundraising tour throughout the month of August to defend U.S. COOL. More information about it is available at www.uscooldefensefund.org