Out to Pasture

August 30, 2009 07:00 PM
Steve Cornett
Our neighbors are mad at us, and you can't really blame them. Both Canada and Mexico are planning to file World Trade Organization (WTO) complaints against the U.S.'s mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL) law. They stand a good chance of prevailing and, even if they don't, it's likely they will retaliate against U.S. beef.

That's hardly good news for the oversupplied U.S. market. These are our two biggest customers for U.S. beef and if they decide a trade war is on, we can forget about economic recovery for cattle prices for a while.

All of this for a law that shows no—as in zero, zip, nada—sign of having any positive impact on consumer demand for U.S. beef.

But, argue proponents, consumers deserve to be able to know where their beef comes from. In a recent news release from R-CALF, the folks who sold COOL to Congress, the organization's CEO, Bill Bullard, is quoted as follows:

"We expect [U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk] to protect U.S. consumers by successfully defending COOL against any and all challenges. It is unbelievably arrogant that Canada and Mexico believe they should be allowed to override the will of U.S. consumers—consumers who deserve the right to know where the food comes from that they feed their families.”

This is, I presume, the same Bill Bullard who was quoted in another release saying, "The NAIS [National Animal Identification System] proposal was developed by the industrialized processing sector of our meat supply chain and it tramples over the rights and privileges of U.S. family farmers and ranchers.”

Which way is it? Now, if consumers "deserve the right to know where the food comes from,” why don't they deserve a tracking system that would provide that information? I, for one, would like to know that I'm not eating dairy beef. Most of it's safe, but it seems to me that every time I see beef in a negative headline, there's a dairy cow at the root.

A lot more often, anyhow, than steers imported as stockers from Mexico and then fed and slaughtered in the U.S. Those weren't Mexican cattle in the HSUS videos last year, were they?

If you really believe consumers have a right to know—or even an interest in knowing—where their beef comes from, don't you suppose they have a right to know as much about how it was produced as where it may have originated?

If you want to know. Oh, wait. If consumers want natural, organic or Nebraska beef, they can find it. If they want to know which farmer produced it, they can find that too. All they have to do is pick up a branded product that charges extra to provide the information. To them, it's added value. So they pay for it. With COOL, they pay the extra cost whether they want to or not.

If they wanted to buy only U.S. beef, the system would have long ago provided it, just as it does the other niche markets.

I don't believe the COOL lobby gives a dung beetle's carcass about the consumer's right to know. They got their start in poorly conceived lawsuits seeking to curtail imports from Canada and Mexico and, near as I can tell, almost every action since then has been designed to stop imports.

It isn't because they are protective of consumers. If that were so, they would be begging for mandated traceability. It's because they are protectionists who are too myopic to realize how important an amenable trading atmosphere is to U.S. beef producers.

Don't take this as an endorsement of mandatory animal I.D. Take it as an endorsement of a system that allows the market to work. A system that lets beef compete on a level playing field without unneeded, expensive, government interference.

I don't know what WTO will decide. Our law is designed to increase the cost of buying cattle from Mexico and Canada and offer consumers low-cost generic beef. That means cheaper prices to Canadian and Mexican producers. But don't think that's going to mean higher prices for you or me. What we see in reduced imports will be quickly swallowed by retributive acts from our neighbors. But we asked for it.

Steve Cornett, Editor Emeritus, writes from Canyon, Texas

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