Two U.S. senators are backing legislation to reinstate country-of-origin labeling for beef, and a third has introduced a resolution supporting such labeling for beef and pork, Meat + Poultry reported. Congress repealed so-called COOL regulations in December 2015.
U.S. Sens. Mike Rounds and John Thune, both Republicans representing South Dakota, introduced a bill Oct. 30 to disallow "Product of U.S.A." labels on beef born, raised and slaughtered in other countries. Their U.S. Beef Integrity Act would mandate that label only for beef products from one or more animals born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., introduced a resolution Oct. 31 to support reinstating COOL for beef and pork. In a release, Tester said COOL gives shoppers more information to make better purchasing decisions and allows producers to compete in a more transparent marketplace.
Some congressional support for COOL is reemerging four years after it was repealed, perhaps because the beef industry is facing competition from plant-based alternatives and eventually may experience similar pressure from lab-cultured meat products. It's no surprise that the three lawmakers backing reinstating COOL come from large cattle-producing states.
Responses so far to the Rounds and Thune legislation have been mixed. R-CALF USA and the U.S. Cattlemen's Association back the measure while the National Cattlemen's Beef Association oppose it.
In the past, COOL was criticized by farmers and ranchers who said it not only violated global trade rules but saddled them with millions of dollars in extra costs. But lawmakers and consumer groups who backed COOL contended that it provided more information on the label and increased its usefulness to shoppers at the supermarket buying pork, chicken and beef who may want to know more about where their food was produced.
“Consumers deserve to know where their food is coming from. When South Dakota families purchase beef labeled ‘Product of the U.S.A.,’ they should know with certainty that it is coming from one of our top-quality producers," Rounds said in a release. "Today’s beef labeling rules are misleading. ... This must be fixed for both consumers and our hardworking producers.”
Kenny Graner, USCA's president and a North Dakota rancher, told the Capital Press beef labels mean nothing since COOL was repealed. He said the U.S. Department of Agriculture's voluntary labeling policy allows beef from outside the U.S. to be salted, cooked, cut or repackaged here and still be labeled as a product of the U.S. Graner added the U.S. brings in beef from 20 countries where production and processing standards are lower.
But the NCBA's vice president of government affairs, Ethan Lane, told the agricultural newspaper that repealing COOL would immediately bring $1 billion in retaliatory tariffs from the World Trade Organization. The WTO ruled in December 2015 the U.S. government couldn't require COOL on meat products because it discriminated against the livestock industries in Canada and Mexico, leaving the U.S. open to retaliatory tariffs from those countries. Congress then proceeded to repeal COOL.
In a statement from the trade group, Lane said members generally "are opposed to requesting additional government regulation on our industry," and that more needs to be known about current beef labeling practices before action is taken.
"The creation of government policy or regulation is a complex process that requires a thorough understanding of the problem and the involvement of many stakeholders. As our industry is fully aware, any rush toward government regulation can create unintended consequences that take years to unwind," he said.
It's not clear whether the Rounds and Thune bill or the Tester resolution will find any traction in the Senate, which has an agenda crowded with, among other things, fiscal 2020 agency budgets, federal judge nominations and impeachment-related matters. Given this calendar, the fact that COOL failed once already and that potential retaliation could again come from Canada and Mexico should the measure be resurrected, lawmakers may be reluctant to support it.