Farm groups disagree over which administration should finalize COOL

WASHINGTON-- Retailers have reported, just a month after the country-of-origin labeling program was implemented, consumers are saying they don't like the label on beef that says the meat may come from the United States, Mexico and Canada. Consume...

WASHINGTON-- Retailers have reported, just a month after the country-of-origin labeling program was implemented, consumers are saying they don't like the label on beef that says the meat may come from the United States, Mexico and Canada. Consumers appear to prefer beef labeled as U.S. in origin, National Cattlemen's Beef Association officials said at an Oct. 29 news briefing.

Meanwhile, NCBA, which opposed the labeling program, says the Bush administration should finalize the country-of-origin labeling rule before it leaves office while the National Farmers Union, which lobbied for labeling, says the rule should not be completed until a six-month implementation period is completed in March. That would leave the finalization up to the next administration.

Mandatory country-of-origin labeling for red meat went into effect Sept. 30. The Agriculture Department will not prosecute grocery stores that do not label meat until next March, but retailers are beginning to put on the labels and analyze how the program works. Meatpackers had proposed using a three-country label on all beef produced in North America but have bowed to pressure from the Agriculture Department and labeling advocates to use that label only on meat from cattle that are slaughtered and processed on a day that the slaughterhouse does not have enough U.S. cattle to finish the day's production.

U.S. preference

Colin Woodall, an NCBA lobbyist told reporters Oct. 29 that retailers have reported to the group's marketing team that consumers have asked retailers to explain the labels with three countries on them. Woodall said consumers are complaining about the label and asking "What does it mean?" Woodall said he has no knowledge of the consumers' reaction to U.S.-labeled beef, but Burton Eller, head of the NCBA Washington office, said the reaction is a "hint" that consumers prefer meat labeled as born, raised and slaughtered in the United States.


Labeling advocates have said for years that if American consumers were offered U.S. beef they would prefer it, but that they have not been given the choice because there has not been country-of-origin labeling. The labeling advocates say consumers assume that beef bearing a USDA stamp is American even though the stamp means only that USDA has determined it is safe.

NCBA had expressed fears that the labeling program would result in a lot more paperwork for ranchers and little financial advantage, but Eller said the labeling program is "now going very well" from the cattlemen's perspective.

Eller also said he thinks the meatpackers' attempt to use a three-country label on all beef was not in compliance with the law that Congress passed and the agreement that had been reached between labeling advocates and the meatpackers over how to implement the program.

Mandatory country-of-origin labeling first was passed in the 2002 farm bill, but Congress and the Bush administration delayed it, arguing that the program was too complicated to implement.

The National Farmers Union's Buis and Randy Russell, a Washington lobbyist who represented the packers, reached agreement last year on simplified rules. But when the packers said they wanted to use a three-country label on all beef, Buis said they were not living up to the agreement.

Final rule

The Agriculture Department has issued a formal rule for the country-of-origin labeling program, but it is not yet final. Eller said "the one thing" the Bush administration can do for NCBA before it leaves office is finalize the labeling rule. Eller said that leaving the rule incomplete when a new administration takes office would not be well-received by the cattle markets. But Buis said he does not want the Bush administration, which opposed labeling, to finish the rule. Buis noted that the three biggest packers -- Tyson, Cargill and JBS Swift -- had agreed to label beef from U.S. cattle as coming from the United States rather than one of three countries, but that he wants to "keep an eye" on the packers in case they don't live to the agreement and the rule needs to be modified.

Buis threatened to go back to Congress for clarifying legislation if the packers did not agree to use the U.S. beef label. Buis said the rule should not be finalized in January because it might need to be modified based on the experience in the implementation period. If the Bush administration does issue a final rule and he is dissatisfied with it, Buis said he will ask Congress to change the law to require that it be revised.


Noting the Farmers Union had been advocating labeling for 14 years, he said, "We're not going to give up until we get what we want. We've got the votes."

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