Letter from Langdon: The Fight for Labeling
With Canada and Mexico claiming to have been harmed by the U.S.'s Country of Origin Labeling, advocates find themselves fighting for the law on multiple fronts. Some lawmakers suggest scaling back COOL, but others say cutting some fat would equal a surrender.
[img:BN-IW239_0610co_M_20150610230158.jpg] [source]Photo by ReutersCOOL requires The country of origin label meatpackers are required to include country-of-origin labels on their products to denote where the meat was raised and slaughtered. The law is in dispute.
Both Canada and Mexico have claimed harm from U.S. Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) that identifies sources of our food.
In spite of the fact that a study by Dr. Robert Taylor of Auburn University shows no harm to foreign markets, the U.S. House of Representatives, led by the House Agriculture Committee, has repealed COOL for U.S. beef, pork, and poultry.
Four U.S. Courts approved the legality of COOL before the World Trade Organization (WTO) complaint was filed. But American laws were subverted by free trade deals allowing WTO statutes to take precedence over our own U.S. law.
Action in the Senate is pending. I hope they take the patriotic route, but with trade sanction retaliation threatened by Canada and Mexico, weak knees in the Senate may prevail just as they did in the House.
USDA has recently approved chicken imports from China even though China’s food safety record is atrocious. The Obama Administration has also approved the import of beef from foot-and-mouth disease afflicted regions of South America, at great peril to American beef herds. And every so often Canada reports another case of mad cow disease, the brain destroying disease that might affect humans the same way.
Without COOL, American consumers will be in the dark about food safety like never before.
Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) has proposed modifying the COOL law of mandatory labeling for muscle cuts of beef and pork to one of voluntary labeling, while preserving mandatory labeling for chicken, ground beef, and ground pork. Those are the products where the risk of food borne illness is greatest.
Some farm groups who said they supported COOL never stepped up to defend it. Farm Bureau, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and National Pork Producers Council never questioned the unfounded WTO complaint. That’s because they represent corporate business interests ahead of small family farms.
Other, more farmer friendly groups see any retreat from mandatory labeling as a betrayal.
Those are some of the same farm groups who argued that mandatory labels were the only way consumers could be sure. They felt voluntary labels let packers and importers off the hook by not forcing them to label everything. But that was when COOL supporters had the upper hand.
Preserving COOL now might mean voluntary labels or nothing at all.
Success or failure of labeling strategies depends on consumers recognizing differences between brand names and misleading advertising on the one hand, and a straightforward label on the other.
Out best customers — U.S. consumers — need to know where their food comes from.
And family farm food producers deserve protection from China-ization of our food supply, where Walmart-like tactics undercut supply and demand, like flooding our markets with cheap merchandise until competition is destroyed.
Most importantly, foreign takeover of our food supply removes American control of our most important resource.
It’s already begun. Smithfield Foods, with labels in practically every U.S. grocers meat case, has been bought lock, stock, and barrel by a Chinese government backed Corporation named Shuanhgui. Of course, Smithfield already owned what was once the largest U.S. farmer owned pork cooperative, Kansas City based Farmland Industries.
Would Farmland ever have failed if the U.S. Government had defended fair competition and markets? We’ll never know.
Now the largest packer in the world, JBS of Brazil, after having already bought out other American companies, has purchased Cargill Incorporated’s pork unit worth almost a billion and a half dollars. Among companies comprising Cargill’s patchwork of pork assets were holdings of MFA Incorporated, another Missouri based farm cooperative.
Missouri, at the center of our nation, sits at the center of pork buyouts as well.
All that points out why labeling is so important. Our government has backed free trade deals for years, saying they mean more American jobs. But so far the evidence is that they mean more foreign jobs, and foreign consumption of America’s basic resources. Those resources are then returned to us as value added products.
Once reserved for manufactured goods, free trade is now beginning to represent greater foreign control of our food supply. COOL got in the way of that. Now big food wants it gone. But more than 70 other nations have their own versions of COOL. The WTO isn’t complaining about those. Only America’s COOL is under the gun.
That seems lopsided, especially since Canada likes to say their consumers prefer Canadian beef nine to one, and want it labeled in stores so they can find it. Yes. Canada has COOL, and U.S. authorities have not complained.
Among the few defenders of American farmers and ranchers is aforementioned Senator Stabenow, who has proposed a voluntary label for muscle cuts of beef (because that’s the mandatory label our trading partners complained about) which would preserve mandatory labeling for ground beef and pork, and chicken.
Keep in mind that farm groups have fought a decades-long battle just to get this far. We’ve invested our political capital as well as our dollars. Some of us believe consumers will rebel. They hope full repeal will awaken a sleeping giant during Congressional elections. While consumer groups have supported COOL, they haven’t really fought for it the way some farm groups have.
Should we expect that to change?
Those with the greatest investment want to save at least part of the law we’ve fought so hard to gain. The National Farmers Union wants to preserve the COOL law to the best of our ability because given the volatile state of Congress, odds of them ever passing another labeling law are slim to none.
The NFU says maybe only a voluntary label for some meat products is better than none.
Especially if it saves the COOL law.
Giant multinational corporations are battling to control not only our food and profits it generates, but the basic knowledge of where food is grown and processed. Both farmers and consumers should hold government fully accountable in food wars to come.
You can’t win battles by giving back what you’ve gained.
That’s why anything less than COOL is like unilateral surrender.
Richard Oswald, a fifth generation farmer, lives in Langdon, Missouri, and is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.