by Doug Sombke, President of South Dakota Farmers Union
On a recent trip to Italy, I was struck by the fact that the menus in nearly every restaurant I patronized labeled all ingredients by their country of origin.
Although the U.S. has a Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) law, which was passed in 2008, our law differs from its European cousin in the fact that COOL only requires the labeling of meats and a limited list of fruits, nuts and vegetables sold in retail outlets.
COOL is a common-sense law which allows consumers to know where their food is sourced. I would like to think that everyone in the world cares where their food and water comes from. COOL ensures Americans know the source of their food.
While reviewing Italian menus, I was struck by the irony of food labeling. While other countries around the world have adopted, or are moving to adopt, food labeling laws, the World Trade Organization (WTO) is contemplating penalizing the U.S. and forcing Americans to remove food labeling laws. In fact, COOL has even been under attack domestically by the multinational meat packers, who would prefer consumers remain uninformed about where their meat comes from. Without country of origin labeling, multinational meat packers would be able to mix imported meat with quality meat raised in the U.S. To prove this point, the two chief trade competitors, Canada and Mexico, have filed the suit at the WTO and oppose COOL.
Lawsuits against COOL have lost all rounds in U.S. courts, so all sides are waiting for the WTO decision coming in mid- to late-May.
Where the rubber meets the road
When proving their case against COOL to the WTO, Canada likes to say the labeling law has hurt their U.S. meat export market. Proving COOL has had a negative impact on Canadian exports to the U.S. will not be easy, given the results of a recent study by Auburn University which found it was the economic collapse of 2008 – not COOL – that softened consumer demand in the U.S., resulting in a reduction in Canadian cattle exports to the U.S.
It will be up to the Canadians to prove otherwise.
If Congress takes any action in regards to COOL before the WTO ruling, it would have negative implications. Historically it would be unprecedented for Congress to make any changes to a law in the middle of a lengthy WTO appeals process, so I hope Congress doesn't start now.
We need to remind Washington that it would be a slap in the face to both American agriculture producers and consumers – who, according to a decade's-worth of consumer polling, support the law by a margin of 90 percent.
I'm very proud of the beef I produce. As a fourth-generation farmer, I understand the labor and investment that goes into producing safe, quality meat. I don't understand why labeling its country, origin or even the farm where it was raised would be such a big deal.
As American cattlemen, we believe that we produce the best beef in the world and we're proud to have "Born, Raised, and Slaughtered in the U.S." on the label.
Oddly, two of the third parties who joined in the dispute over COOL at the WTO are the European Union (EU) and Australia. These two parties have either already enacted, or are in the process of enacting, a similar labeling law. Of course, meat labeling didn't happen in Europe until consumers found out that they were eating horsemeat instead of beef! Another reason COOL should remain on the books here.
Who knows what the WTO might decide. Globally, the political environment is clearly shifting towards more information for consumers, not less. So in the end, pressure will continue to mount within the WTO to recognize and accept the right of consumers to increased information such as is provided by COOL. Until then, we need to make sure Congress stays out of it and lets the process run its course.
If knowing where your food comes from is important to you, contact our Congressional Leadership and ask them to leave COOL alone.