A long four years looms

Published on: 16:43PM Feb 24, 2009

By Steve Cornett

On Tuesday, at the invitation of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard participated in a conference call with the Secretary, along with representatives of the National Farmers Union, Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America, Food & Water Watch and the American Farm Bureau Federation, to address problems with loopholes in the final mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL) rule, originally scheduled to take effect in March.” 

That was the lead on a news release sent out last week from R-Calf. If you don’t think this is going to be a long four years for mainstream agriculture—or “factory farmers” as most of the guys on that list of organizations like to say—go look at the websites and  study the policies of the groups the new secretary chose to let in on this first big news of his new job.

As it turned out, the news was maybe not as big as Vilsack originally thought. Later on Tuesday, his office announced he would hold a press conference on Wednesday to explain the changes to reporters. But apparently, he had made a mistake in thinking the decision was his alone, because on Wednesday morning, reporters’ inboxes had a note from USDA saying the press conference had been cancelled, “due to a scheduling conflict.”

That sounded a little like maybe the secretary’s schedule was in conflict, but as it turned out, the schedule conflicted with belonged to President Obama. He was scheduled to spend Thursday in Canada trying to reassure folks there that he was not as anti-trade as he sounded during the campaign. That would be the same Canada, the one north of here that had earlier threatened to file a WTO suit against the U.S. because of the COOL law. The same Canada that withdrew the threat after it saw the final rule that Vilsack was telling R-CALF he would scuttle.

Apparently, the new secretary had not—here’s a word we hear a lot these days--“vetted” his COOL plan with the White House. I guess all the other players in the administration kind of liked the way the old USDA wrote the rule. There is reason for that. It gives consumers a chance to choose U.S. product if they want and the meat packers claim that 90% or 95% or more of all beef will be labeled specifically. Plus, why would Obama want to pick a fight with Canada right now? His plate is pretty full as is. 

So, by Friday, the Secretary simply announced that COOL would go into effect March 16 as planned by the Bush USDA. But, in an unusual letter to packers, he suggested marketers voluntarily adhere to stricter rules or “I will carefully consider whether modifications to the rule will be necessary to achieve the intent of congress.”

The packers already had that message in hand and are planning to segregate a large percentage of beef by country of origin. It’s unclear to me at least, given the limitations placed on what packers can demand of producers, how they might be able to include on labels whether cattle were born and raised in country X or just born in country X and raised in country Y.

But on March 16 there will be mandatory COOL throughout the land.

The importance of the COOL law and rule is overplayed on both sides of the rhetorical aisle. It will go into effect and you and I and consumers will hardly notice. If it’s change you’re looking for, consider that list of groups the secretary thought important enough to include in his loop on his plan. This is not a secretary who regards himself as a front man for agriculture, and he has told the press as much. He says he was an overweight as a kid and he thinks parents could use more government help in learning how to teach their children to be healthy eaters.

Just how much he has bought into the Pollan Premise—food is too cheap and too energy dependent—we won’t know until later. But I don’t ever remember, even during the Carter Administration, a secretary of agriculture putting consumerist groups so far up the list of People to Please. It will be an interesting four years, indeed.

Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him via e-mail at [email protected].

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