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COOL good for consumers, good for ag producers

By John Stencel

Consumers want it. Producers want it. It’s not illegal or even difficult. So, why all the fuss over requiring country-of-origin labeling (COOL) on all fruits, vegetables, peanuts, meats, honey and fish by September 2004?

Mandatory country-of-origin food labeling became law as part of the 2002 farm bill, signed by President George W. Bush last year. However, data released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in a Nov. 21, 2002 Federal Register Notice stated that implementation of such labeling is estimated to cost the industry $2 billion per year.

Meanwhile, meat processors are pressing USDA and livestock producers to overturn the labeling requirement. Producers throughout the country have received threatening letters in an attempt to turn producers against the legislation. A letter from Swift & Company in Greeley, Colo., tells producers that each of their animals must have a “passport,” recording any of its stops outside of the United States. The letter notes that Swift & Company “will require (from the producer) third-party verified documentation (audit trail) proving where the animals purchased were born and raised.” The company also states that it will conduct “random producer audits verifying that an accurate audit trail is in place” and that it will issue fines when noncompliance is found. The inflated $2 billion estimate to implement labeling and the pressuring from meat processing companies are blatant attempts to strong arm Congress and the administration into repealing the country-of-origin labeling requirement.

The $2 billion estimate was put together for USDA by just three organizations. The National Pork Producers Council, the National Meat Association and the National Food Processors all are vehemently opposed to any form of mandatory country-of-origin labeling. Furthermore, many of the assumptions used to make this estimate were wrong.

For example, it assumes that all of America’s 2 million farmers will have to establish a country-of-origin identity for their produce. It also assumes that an entire new infrastructure would need to be established to track country of origin on these foods. In fact, much of this information, particularly on imported foods, is already being collected as part of U.S. Customs requirements.

Existing labeling programs have already proved that country-of-origin food labeling is feasible and not expensive. California very inexpensively labels much of its produce with state labels. Florida has for several years had a mandatory country-of-origin labeling law. A report from its department of agriculture states the cost to all sectors for maintaining the labeling law is about $300,000 annually. This is for a large agricultural state with 14 million residents and 47 million visitors per year. It also needs to be noted that existing government regulations and standard marketing practices already cover a majority of the industry expenses associated with labeling, something that was ignored in the USDA-published estimate.

Creating new, complicated identification systems and making producers responsible for them is in direct opposition to the law passed by Congress. The USDA should advocate for U.S. agricultural producers, instead of relying on data from organizations that are known opponents of country-of-origin labeling. I also should note that labeling is supported by National Farmers Union and by the American Farm Bureau Federation, as well as by hundreds of other farm and consumer groups.

Processors and retailers are using overblown estimates and fears of burdensome paperwork in an attempt to reverse overwhelming consumer and producer support of labeling. They know tomatoes from Guatemala will turn off consumers and meat labels stating that ground meat is from animals originating in Argentina, Chile, Spain and ten other countries could hurt sales of imported foods.

With survey after survey showing that consumers want their food labeled with its country of origin, retailers and processors need to seize mandatory labeling as a marketing opportunity and quit fighting the wishes of consumers and producers!