COOL starts to heat up

SALEM, Ohio – Debate about COOL heated up last week as USDA officials headed to different parts of the country to address concerns about the controversial country-of-origin labeling.

But that’s not the only reason talk is sizzling, said Elizabeth Harsh, executive director of Ohio Cattlemen’s Association. It’s also because producers are starting to feel the legislation’s burden.

Country-of-origin labeling, also known as COOL, was part of last year’s farm bill and will require producers to keep track of all records pertaining to the origin of their livestock. This origin information will be on products in the grocery store.

High awareness. With more information being circulated about the potential burden of record keeping, producers’ awareness is piqued, Harsh said.

Packers started issuing letters to producers, telling them what will be required under COOL guidelines, and USDA issued initial information about the record-keeping process – all of which heightened awareness, she said.

In addition, Harsh said calves on the ground are already subject to COOL, even though the program isn’t mandatory until next fall. These calves’ documents need to be in place now so they will have the audit history required when they are sold as meat.

Burden. “Many of Ohio’s pork producers would have to implement a record-keeping system that would be much too costly for them to stay in business,” said Dick Isler, executive vice president of Ohio Pork Producers Council.

An economic analysis of the program by Iowa State University and pork industry economists says the cost of a full traceable system could cost up to $10.22 per hog.

This is the common thread of worry among producers of beef, lamb, pork, fish, peanuts and other perishable agricultural commodities: The cost of record keeping will be too much of a financial burden.

Even the USDA’s William T. Hawks, undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, admitted in a statement last month that although the administration is fully committed to carrying out this initiative, “the unintended consequences on producers could be significant.”

Flexibility. The labeling system is OK on its surface, Harsh said, but the “devil’s in the details.”

Part of the concern is that the labeling system will be mandatory.

A voluntary system is in effect until Sept. 30, 2004, after which the law will be mandatory.

With a voluntary system, which the pork council is pushing for, producers who see the benefits could label, but not every producer would have to keep the intricate records needed for COOL.

By making COOL mandatory, the pork council says many retailers may require a costly animal identification and traceable system to protect themselves from penalties imposed by inspectors for mislabeled products. This, in turn, will cause higher-priced pork products and shy consumers away from purchasing the product.

In addition, the cost associated with the record keeping would be “devastating to small producers,” Isler said.

Legislation will be needed to keep COOL voluntary after next fall.

Reasoning. Consumers want to know where their food comes from, which Isler says is understandable, but he doubts they are willing to pay an additional 10 percent at the grocery store for this knowledge.

He also reasons that half the food dollar is spent away from home and restaurants are not included in COOL.

Listening sessions. Informational sessions about COOL will be in 12 states across the country through June. For more information visit www.ams.usda.gov/cool/.

(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

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