Rhetoric is not so COOL

September 28, 2013 09:04 AM
Greg Henderson cropped

Proponents of mandatory country- of-origin labeling (MCOOL) won another round in their decade-long fight last month when a U.S. District Court judge denied a request to temporarily block enforcement of the controversial labeling rules until a July 8 lawsuit is concluded.

The decision means USDA must enforce the revised MCOOL rule. Organizations representing meat packers and cattlemen had hoped the final rule would be modified, but when that didn’t happen, the American Meat Institute (AMI) filed a lawsuit—along with seven other ag industry groups, including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA)—that called COOL "unconstitutional."

Groups fighting to preserve COOL are the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, R-CALF USA, the American Sheep Industry Association and National Farmers Union.

Deep divisions. It’s sort of a David versus Goliath fight. The "David" groups were giddy that the temporary injunction was denied, but time may prove this to be a classic case of "be careful what you wish for."

That’s because MCOOL requires retailers to specify where an animal was born, raised and slaughtered, and it prevents retailers from mixing muscle cuts from different countries under one general label.

On the surface, that sounds good. You wouldn’t want to buy a package of two T-bone steaks with one steak from a British-crossbred steer raised in Montana and the other of questionable heritage from south of Tijuana. Reality, however, is that such an offering doesn’t happen now.

The meat industry "Goliaths" claim COOL violates the U.S. Constitution by compelling speech in the form of costly and detailed labels that confuse consumers and raise prices. USDA estimates the first-year incremental costs for producers, processors, wholesalers and retailers to be $2.6 billion.

A heavy cost, for sure, and may be worth it if demand increased for beef and pork. But an analysis by Kansas State University economists found no such benefit, and they concluded, "The overriding finding of limited awareness of MCOOL, narrow use of origin information in purchasing decisions and no evidence of a meat demand impact following MCOOL implementation is consistent with the argument that voluntary labeling by country of origin would have occurred if it were economically beneficial."

So, MCOOL increases consumer costs with no real benefit. Your industry, however, suffers from the rhetoric spewed in this controversy. The CEO of one of the "Davids," for instance, claims the "Goliaths" want to preserve the "right to deceive consumers" with vague and misleading labels.

That’s hogwash. Producers, packers and retailers all want the same thing—to provide a safe, wholesome beef product. Ratcheting up the rhetoric that promotes an adversarial rela­tionship between producers and packers is just counter-productive.

greg henderson

Editorial Director, Beef Today, writes from Mission, Kan. ghenderson@farmjournal.com

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