Country-of-Origin Labeling for meat coming into the United States remains a contentious issue in Congress, with competing proposals in the Senate and a challenge in the World Trade Organization. The law helps meet consumer demand for more information about food origins, but its future is up in the air.
Efforts to change federal Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) may be stalled, but they aren’t on the back burner.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation earlier this summer to repeal COOL, but the House is now in in recess. In the Senate, a repeal clause is attached to a highway bill but faces unified Democratic opposition and the support of a few Republicans. It looks increasingly unlikely that any COOL legislation will see action before the end of the summer congressional recess.
Country of Origin Labeling requires that certain products, including beef and pork, are tagged with a label that says where the animal that produced the meat was born, raised, and slaughtered.
The pressure for doing something about COOL is the result of a World Trade Organization ruling saying the legislation discriminates against beef and pork coming into the U.S. from Canada and Mexico. U.S. packers claim that it is too difficult and expensive to keep track of animals requiring different labels in their plants.
The House has already passed COOL-repeal legislation by a margin of 300-131 and its adoption by the Senate would move repeal forward. To force the issue in the Senate, Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), a long-time opponent of COOL, added language repealing COOL for beef, pork, and chicken products to a must-pass extension of the highway bill. His amendment does not include provision for a voluntary COOL program. “We can continue to discuss voluntary labeling programs similar to those already in the marketplace once COOL is repealed,” Roberts said.
Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) and John Hoeven (R-North Dakota) have introduced a bill in the Senate that would repeal mandatory COOL legislation and replace it with a voluntary COOL program. In support of her legislation Stabenow said, “It would be a sad day, and I believe irresponsible on our part, if we move back to the days prior to COOL where we were labeling meat that was born in a foreign country and spent most of its life in the foreign country but then could somehow come in and be harvested here and be called a product of the United States.”
Stabenow points out that Canada also has a mandatory country-of-origin labelling law for food products. According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency website, “When a food product is wholly manufactured outside of Canada, the label must show that the product is imported. … In addition, it is mandatory to state the country of origin on some specific imported prepackaged products, such as … meat products. … For example, prepackaged cheese from the United States imported into Canada is required to be labelled ‘Product of United States.’”
When the COOL repeal was being debated in the House, Representative Collin Peterson (D-Minnesota) pointed out that the European Union also has Country-of-Origin Labelling laws. Australia is considering a Country-of-Origin law that would require a label to indicate the domestic percentage of a product.
These laws come into being because consumers everywhere want to know the provenance of the products they buy, including food. Consumers may have a preference for domestic products for a variety of reasons: They want to “buy local,” they want to support the domestic economy with their purchases, they believe that domestic products are better, whether or not that is true.
While some groups have come out in support of the Senator Roberts’ repeal or Senators Stabenow and Hoeven’s voluntary program, there are those who are opposed to any action until the World Trade Organization dispute is settled. The U.S. has challenged the level of the countervailing tariffs Canada and Mexico are asking for.
On July 28, 2015, a group of “142 farm, ranch, rural, faith, environmental, farmworker, manufacturing and consumer organizations” sent a letter to Roberts, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Stabenow, the committee’s Ranking Member, “respectfully urging [them] to reject both efforts to repeal the mandatory Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) law and any attempts to convert the COOL law into a voluntary program.”
“It is premature for Congress to unilaterally surrender to saber-rattling from our trading partners in the midst of a long-standing dispute,” the letter argued. “COOL opponents have highlighted Mexico and Canada’s threats of retaliation as if their aspiration to seek billions of dollars in penalties were already approved by the WTO. But these unapproved, unrealistically high retaliation claims are merely aggressive litigation tactics designed to frighten the United States—a standard practice in WTO disputes. Congress should not fall for it.”
The letter says the economic recession, not Country-of-Origin-Labeling, was the pimary cause of declining meat imports, citing a study by Robert Taylor, an agricultural economist at Auburn University.
At this point, we are not ready to predict what action Congress might take. But we do believe that consumers are learning how to put pressure on grocery retailers and major restaurant chains to get what they want. No matter what Congress does, if enough consumers want to know where their food comes from, they will find a way to get that information.
Harwood D. Schaffer is a research assistant professor in the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center (APAC), Institute of Agriculture, University of Tennessee. Daryll E. Ray is emeritus professor, Institute of Agriculture and former director of APAC.