Meat of the Matter: Not so COOL anymore

The ill-advised, poorly written and wholly ineffective Country of Origin labeling law is finally getting a decent burial. Some folks are in mourning, but they should be celebrating.

Finally, the end is near.

After more than a dozen years of debate, controversy and disappointment for all parties involved, the ill-advised law with the incongruously inappropriate nickname appears to be on its way out.

Country of Origin Labeling, better known as COOL, has been tentatively repealed by a vote of Congress as part of the recently approved omnibus spending bill.

The meatpacking side of the industry was obviously pleased.

"We are enormously grateful that lawmakers have included language in the Omnibus bill to repeal mandatory country of origin labeling for certain meat products," North American Meat Institute CEO Barry Carpenter said in a statement. "This congressional action is an important step in avoiding the financial harm so many industries will incur once Canada and Mexico initiate the tariffs sanctioned by the WTO's ruling earlier this month. This trade dispute's tentacles extend far beyond agriculture, and it's time to put an end to this costly trade barrier."

In perhaps the most important part of his statement a sentence that could have covered everything that needed to be said Carpenter emphasized that, "The marketplace, with consumers as the drivers, should determine what labeling is meaningful and should appear on meat products not protectionists who fear free and unfettered trade."

That's the issue with COOL, the primary problem from which the legislation suffered from all along. If consumers don't respond with their wallets to product labels that proclaim "Made in USA," which is what the law's proponents were counting on to make the measure meaningful, the net result is a classic case of fixing something that wasn't broken.

The real reason for imports

Of course, that viewpoint isn't shared by everyone in the live side of the beef industry.

Bill Bullard, the CEO of R-CALF USA issued a statement in response to Congressional action to repeal COOL.

"In the most underhanded way, Congress is depriving all of us of our right to know where the beef or pork we feed ourselves, our children and our grandchildren was born, raised and slaughtered," the statement read.

Wait one moment. Yes, we all care about what our grandchildren are eating, but neither kids nor grandkids read food labels. COOL was never about protecting the well-being of the meat-eating public, even though that's exactly the argument Bullard and his allies tried to make during the initial round of USDA hearings in 2003 that preceded passage of the measure.

"This is government at its worst," Bullard's statement continued. "Congressional leaders are helping the politically powerful multinational meatpackers to hide the origins of the beef they are importing from Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and the other countries . . . from where the meatpackers source their beef for the U.S. market."

Again, a slanted view of the situation. The quantity of beef imported from Honduras, Nicaragua is miniscule, but the more pertinent question is, why have imports of beef remained robust? Because domestic production is titled toward a Choice grade carcass, and packers don't capture optimal margins if most of that muscle meat is ground into hamburger.

Convince Americans that ground beef, deli meats and other processed products can be formulated with higher fat levels and still be considered healthy and the need to import beef trim from grass fed cattle will subside.

Until then, there simply isn't enough supply to fulfill consumer demand for 90-10 ground beef, reduced-fat sausage and low-fat processed products, which means imports are required.

But there is one other objection to country-of-origin labeling that also doesn't ring true, yet it's been the at the core of the pro-COOL proponents" positioning from the day the concept was created.

As Bullard phrased it, "Congress is forsaking consumers and producers by terminating the right of U.S. citizens to know the origins of their food."

Wrong. Search the Constitution all you like, but you won't find The Right to Know About Food Origins anywhere in the document. Nor in case law, nor in any congressional legislation.

The right to know about food is akin to the right to drive a car. It's not a right, but a widely endorsed privilege that is (and should be) highly regulated by the states and by the federal government.

Want to know what's in your food? Start with the manufacturers, not the policymakers.

The major grocery companies and foodservice operators are very vulnerable to consumer activist pressure. Just check out how quickly they all overreacted with regard to everything from mad cow and pink slime to the current race to distance themselves from suppliers using gestation stalls and sub-therapeutic antibiotics.

None of those radical decisions had anything to do with the law, but rather reflected a strong if misguided consensus of consumer opinion.

Which was precisely what COOL didn't have.

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator.