- The Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF) has raised $50,000 and embarked on a campaign to bring back mandatory country-of-origin (COOL) labeling for beef, according to a news release. The group's "Label Our Beef" campaign, which kicked off in May, is asking President Trump to reinstate the COOL rule by executive order. Congress repealed the rule in December 2015.
- R-CALF said the group, along with Public Justice, Food & Water Watch and Farm Aid, delivered a petition with 37,299 signatures to the administration and the U.S. Commerce Department requesting that mandatory COOL be included in the federal government’s trade policies.
- "Three simple words, 'Product of USA,' is the new metaphorical cash cow," Mike Schultz, chairman of R-CALF USA's COOL Committee, said in the release. "When the COOL law was fully implemented from 2013 to 2015, American farmers and ranchers received $325 per calf more compared to the next two years when meat packers were no longer required by law to label beef with its country-of-origin. That money once stayed in America's local communities and was recirculated."
There was speculation even before Trump took office that he might be open to reinstating the COOL rule as part of the North American Free Trade Agreement renegotiation process — or possibly as part of his initiative to "Buy American." However, some believe the president may not be as keen on the idea now.
R-CALF faces other obstacles to this effort as well. It's unlikely mainstream farm and ranch groups that supported killing COOL in 2015 will want it resurrected now. Major meat producers, including Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods and Hormel Foods, lobbied hard to repeal COOL. They claimed such labeling would mean higher production and consumer costs and perhaps run afoul of World Trade Organization rules.
The latter threat wasn't an idle one. The WTO ruled in December 2015 the U.S. government couldn't require country-of-origin labels 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.
Critics of the repeal said it was orchestrated to produce a predictable result. "Clearly this language was produced by long-time COOL opponents who legislated in the dark of the night under the guise of solving an issue, when really their intentions completely undermine the will of American consumers and producers," Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, said in a release. The NFU has supported a voluntary COOL program, which would not violate WTO regulations.
U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the Senate's repeal of COOL protected American agriculture from retaliation. "U.S. exporters can now breathe a sigh of relief," Roberts said in a release. "From the ranchers in Kansas to the jewelry makers on the East Coast, every state had something to lose from keeping mandatory COOL intact. Those worries can now be put to rest, and I’m proud to say the Senate has voted to protect the American economy."
R-CALF, the Cattle Producers of Washington and Public Justice filed a lawsuit in 2016 to overturn a U.S. Department of Agriculture decision to no longer require imported meat to be labeled with the country of origin. The plaintiffs maintained the agency's decision allowed imported products to be sold here as U.S. products. R-CALF said at the time if country-of-origin labeling wasn't applied to imported meat, U.S. farmers and ranchers would get paid less for their products because large companies would bring in foreign meat and pass it off as domestic.
The Organization for Competitive Markets and the American Grassfed Association recently petitioned the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service to clarify its rules on using "Product of U.S.A." labels on imported meat. The groups said that label can be applied to imported meat if it passes through a USDA-inspected plant.
Even if the Trump administration decided to restore COOL, the next administration could take it away again, especially if a newly minted trade deal and/or the WTO determined it's discriminatory. Such an uncertain political climate could leave consumers and producers in a bind since they wouldn't know when the winds might shift again and require adaptation to a new set of rules.
There is one consistent aspect of this debate, though. U.S. consumers increasingly want transparency when it comes to the food they buy. According to a 2016 Consumer Reports Food Labels Survey, 87% of 1,001 adults said they wanted labels on meat, poultry, fish and produce to indicate country of origin; 93% wanted to know whether meat was from outside the U.S.; 60% wanted label information to show where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered; and 33% thought if an animal was born or raised outside the U.S., it was a product of that country.