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Country-of-orign food labeling faces attack

By Marilyn Bay Wentz

Despite years of opposition to country-of-origin labeling (COOL) by processors and some farm organizations, mandatory COOL became law as part of the 2002 farm bill, signed by President George W. Bush last May. Voluntary COOL has already gone into effect, and mandatory labeling of all fruits, vegetables, peanuts, meats, honey and fish is to be implemented in September 2004.

“This law is overwhelmingly favored by consumers and a great marketing opportunity for producers who are not afraid to tout their products,” said Rocky Mountain Farmers Union (RMFU) President John Stencel.

Not surprisingly, the large meat processors are fighting the labeling law tooth and nail. Producers throughout the country have already 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.

“In fact, the COOL law explicitly prohibits a mandatory trace back system,” said Tracy Beckman, National Farmers Union (NFU) policy analyst. “These letters are aimed at scaring producers away from supporting country-of-origin labeling, and unfortunately, it is working.”

Beckman is angered that meat processors are trying to place the burden of proof on producers, noting that the law specifically states that the responsibility is on retailers, not on producers.

“The public school lunch program and the military meal program already require a protocol to ensure that meat and other products are U.S. born, raised and processed. Any company producing for these two very large-volume programs already have systems set up to segregate product by country of origin,” Beckman said.

Coupled with the scare tactics being employed by meat processors is flack over unsupported cost data released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in a Nov. 21, 2002 Federal Register Notice. The notice states that implementation of COOL is estimated to cost the industry $2 billion per year. USDA acquired this very inflated figure from just three organizations: The National Pork Producers Council, the National Meat Association and the National Food Processors. All three are long-term opponents of any form of mandatory country-of-origin labeling program.

“They already have a label on the meat at the grocery store; what’s the big expense to add one line expressing the county of origin?” said Jerry Hergenreder, an RMFU member and beef producer from Longmont, Colo. “The processors already use a program to segregate for Certified Angus Beef, so it shouldn’t be a big deal to record the country of origin of these cattle.”

Beckman agrees, saying that the USDA should advocate for U.S. agricultural producers, instead of relying on data from organizations that are known opponents of COOL.

NFU, as part of a coalition of over 100 other farm and consumer groups, has issued a letter to USDA encouraging the department to approach COOL as specified in the law mandating it by looking to replicate models of existing COOL programs and using similar, far less-costly systems. For example, the $2 billion estimate published by USDA assumes that all 2 million farmers will have to establish a country-of-origin identity for their produce.

“This is in direct opposition to the law that was passed,” Beckman said. “All that needs to be done is to identify the non-U.S. product, which is still the minority of product in this country.”

California very inexpensively labels much of its produce with state labels. Florida has for several years had a mandatory COOL 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.

Hergenreder comments, “It is obvious the processors do not want people to know where their meat is coming from. On the other hand, we as producers are proud of our product. Producers need to be more proactive about what they are doing to turn out a quality product for the American consumer.”

In the letter issued by NFU and its coalition partners, USDA was urged to integrate country-of-origin labeling into pre-existing systems currently used in the food and agriculture sector, require a competent study be performed by a third party researcher, and that the burden on U.S. food producers be minimized. RMFU will continue to monitor implementation of this law and advocate for implementation as laid out in the law.