For all the heat involved in its passage and design, the COOL's reception seemed a little cool.
Your reporter, assuming that if such a rule were to make a splash anywhere, it would be in California's wine country, where terms like "organic” and "natural” seem to be required reading on food, clothing and wine labels. So, dutifully, we loaded up with some friends—including a local beef processor/retailer—last week to greet COOL in Napa Valley.
The trip wasn't all about food labels, but we did have some spare time on our hands, the wine tastings not starting until 10 a.m., and we spent some of that visiting those trendy, high priced, grocery stores that dot the landscape in that trendy, high-priced, part of the country.
At each stop, I caught somebody involved with the meat department and asked about the labels. One said he had heard about it. But the others gave me the same willing but clueless look I get from my dog when I ask him if he can do algebra. At Safeway we found labels, but they were in a little bitty font that made one think, perhaps, the marketers thought, perhaps, nobody cared.
One of the butchers gave me a convincing, albeit incorrect, spiel about how they didn't need to label their meats because they buy everything from the U.S. That's about what my friend and personal meat purveyor/processor said his USDA inspector had told him. However, as I read the regulations, he will indeed need to A) get paperwork on the cattle he cherry picks from local feedyards and B) identify them as a product of the U.S. on his packages unless he happens to harvest a calf that was born in Mexico on that same day.
The papers had been full of news about this great COOL law, so in each case I asked meat counter attendants if there had been any interest expressed by consumers. Their universal answer: "Nope. Nary a query one.”
For the first three days of the new labels, I was the first to ask about country of origin in perhaps eight different stores. When I got home, I was off to the nearest Wal-Mart Supercenter. The guy there said it "will be seven to 10 days” before meat labels arrive. "Has anybody asked?” I asked. No, he said.
Finally, on Saturday, I found an attendant at another local supermarket who was aware of the rule and was able to show me the itty bitty label. Again, I was the first who had asked. Again, it simply said it was a product of U.S., Canada, Mexico.
I am not an opponent of COOL. It will add costs which will reduce consumption, but that may be offset by consumers' being able to avoid beef from scary places during food scares of the future. If, for instance, the label on my burger meat said product of China I would avoid the stuff myself. There may be some people who will avoid Canadian product for fear of BSE. There will also be some Lou Dobster foreigner-haters who will want only U.S. beef. One or two of them may pay extra.
However, I'm not among those who expect to see any great reward to U.S. beef from the labels. I don't think consumers are interested enough in "buying local” to pay much extra for beef of U.S. origin. I know they say in surveys they will. I know the consumerist outfits say they will. But why, then, aren't they asking?
I might, of course, be wrong about all that. But let me remind you that nobody in the beef industry knows more than retailers about what consumers are interested in. They didn't want the COOL law. They don't think it will justify the extra expense. They might be wrong, of course. I remember making this same argument back in the 80s when the cattle industry began pushing packers to more closely trim beef. I had always presumed that retailers would know if consumers wanted trimmed beef. I was wrong. When the National Cattlemen's Association provided them with the evidence, they rushed headlong into close trim and consumers ate it up.
So, maybe they and I are wrong. However, a visit to the Consumers Union site indicates that despite their poll showing 92% of consumers wanted COOL, not one had bothered to respond to their online blog on the topic.
I guess the point is that despite all the hoopla, I'd suggest you not get overly excited about COOL impacting demand for your cattle. Alongside the value of the dollar, the general economy and export developments, COOL is a non-event. You and I would add more value to our cattle by giving up the hot brand than we'll ever realize from COOL.
Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.