USDA may not get COOL funding: Food labeling debate rages on

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SALEM, Ohio – COOL is anything but cool these days in Washington.

Heated debate over country-of-origin labeling, or COOL, marked the bulk of a House Agriculture Committee oversight hearing June 26, as well as House Appropriations Committee actions June 25.

Not about food safety. COOL opponents from both the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Pork Producers Council said the legislation is masquerading as a food safety issue, when it’s not.

Jon Caspers, president of the pork council, called it “marketing issue” and “a trade protectionist law,” and urged the committee to replace the legislation with a voluntary program.

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association President Eric Davis said the beef association supports labeling, but said the issue is “how to provide country-of-origin information to the consumer in a way that does not cause producers pain.”

Davis said the law will increase costs that “will either be passed back to producers in the form of lower prices or forward to consumers in the form of higher prices.”

“This favors large integrated operations at the expense of small, independent producers,” the pork council’s Jon Caspers added.

No one knows for sure. Davis said the biggest unknown is the impact of the interpretation of the labeling law’s provisions.

“The current country-of-origin labeling law was never fully analyzed,” Davis said.

“The law was put together wrong and shoved down NCBA’s throat and NPPC’s throat,” said National Cattlemen’s Beef Association lobbyist Chandler Keys, who added that Congress is now trying to point the fingers at USDA and suggest it was all USDA’s fault.

“They knew exactly what it was going to do,” Keys said in a media teleconference June 26.

Scare tactic. Pa. Farmers Union President Larry Breech took exception to claims that the new law burdens producers.

“I am offended by the scare tactics that large agribusinesses are using to deter farmers and ranchers from supporting this beneficial law,” Breech testified at a USDA hearing June 26 in Lancaster, Pa.

He said the ag industry should be focused on developing rules and regulations for the law’s implementation in the least burdensome way possible.

The American Sheep Industry Association last week reiterated its support for mandatory country-of-origin labeling of lamb, saying the law gives consumers the assurance they already have with some food products – in that they know where those products originated.

Appropriations provision. The House may derail labeling efforts through another door: appropriations.

At the same time as the ag committee hearing, the House Appropriations Committee approved a $175.5 billion spending bill June 25 that included a provision from Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, that would undo the country-of-origin labeling legislation that was part of last year’s farm bill.

If the language is approved by both the House and Senate, the final regulation for mandatory labeling would be delayed.

‘Buy local’ trend. Regardless of the labeling law outcome, there is a consumer movement under way to “buy locally,” according to Kansas State University’s Jana Beckman.

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, impacted how some Americans began to view food security, she said, although she believes the trend was in place before 9/11.

“We saw large-scale and immediate behavior change in 1996 and 1997,” Beckman said. “Tainted imports caused not only health problems but also at least a 50 percent drop in the sale of U.S. strawberries that weren’t locally grown.

“People started wanting to see the producer who grew their food,” she said.

Become law Sept. 30. The USDA published interim, voluntary guidelines for country-of-origin labeling last fall and the rule becomes mandatory Sept. 30.

Current standards indicate that country-of-origin labeling will be the primary responsibility of retailers to indicate the country-of-origin on meat (except for poultry), perishable agriculture products and peanuts.

Food service operators, including restaurants, lunchrooms, cafeterias, food stands, bars and lounges are exempt from the regulation.

U.S. and “mixed origin” products must detail all production stages, including where the animal was born, country or countries in which the animal was raised and the country in which the animal was processed.

Imported products must be labeled at the point of importation, regarding the country from which a product is imported.

Ground or commingled product must also follow the rules.

Exact record-keeping procedures are unknown at this time, although retailers must keep an auditable record system with a verifiable trail for at lest two years.

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