Battle over COOL heating up

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Farm Forum

North Dakota senators have signed on to a completely different and competing fix for the mandatory country of origin labeling law that ran afoul of the World Trade Organization and threatens to bring a cloud of tariffs raining down on the nation’s livestock producers.

Senators John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) introduced a bill in the Senate on July 23 that would repeal COOL (Country of Origin Labeling) and replace it with a voluntary program, thus allowing processors to label meat products by federal statute if they so choose.

“Retaliatory tariffs won’t just impact meat producers and processors, but will also affect consumers, businesses and jobs, so Senator Stabenow and I have developed a solution that should work for all of them,” Hoeven said. “We cannot put ourselves in a position where Canada and Mexico can retaliate against us for mandatory country of origin labeling, but we can have a voluntary labeling program and still meet WTO requirements.”

Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), who is a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and has been a vocal advocate of COOL, is among several co-sponsors signing onto the bil.

Consumers want to know where the meat they buy and serve comes from, Heitkamp said. “Our bipartisan bill will safeguard the integrity of our ‘A’ label and support our ranchers, who take great pride in raising the best products in the world.”

Other sponsors of the bill included John Thune (R-S.D.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

While the senators believe their measure will avoid retaliatory tariffs from Canada and Mexico, Canada’s agriculture minister Gerry Ritz has already expressed public displeasure with the bill and said it would continue to undermine North American supply chains. He said Canada would still pursue $3 billion in annual retaliation if the U.S. doesn’t follow the lead of the House of Representatives and fully repeal COOL. Mexican officials meanwhile have said they would seek $650 million in countervailing duties.

Hoeven and Stabenow pointed out Canada has a similar voluntary labeling program in place.

“If consumers in Canada have the right to know where their food comes from through a voluntary labeling process, then American consumers should have the same,” Stabenow said. “This bill also ensures that any American label is consistent and recognizes the hard work of America’s family farmers and ranchers who proudly raise the world’s safest most abundant most affordable food.”

Hoeven and Stabenow’s measure competes with an amendment filed previously by Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) onto a pending highway bill. It would repeal COOL for beef, pork and poultry.

Both Senate measures come on the heels of a May ruling that the United State’s mandatory COOL law violates international trade agreements.

The WTO is presently deciding how much in retaliatory measures Canada and Mexico would be allowed to enact.

Steve Brooks, president of The North Dakota Stockmen’s Association said it is imperative that Congress address the pending tariffs from Canada and Mexico.

“While we appreciate the Senate finally starting this important conversation and fully support voluntary labeling programs – like those offered through USDA’s process verified programs – both the Canadian and Mexican governments have indicated in public statements and at tri-lateral trade meetings that they will not accept a ‘legislated voluntary label’ and will pursue retaliatory tariffs if Congress takes the approach offered today. In short this will not fix the problem.”

Brooks believes a complete repeal of COOL is the best way to go.

“We continue to encourage the Senate to follow the lead of the U.S. House in protecting the U.S. beef industry by pursuing a repeal of the mandatory COOL program and to encourage the development of voluntary labeling programs through USDA’s process verified programs, instead of through a statutory process that will subject U.S. cattle ranchers and others to the same tariffs we would be if nothing was done.”

Pete Hanebut, director of public policy for the North Dakota Farm Bureau, said he believed moving toward voluntary labeling would be a step in the right direction, and that all the discussion about tariffs would ultimately be resolved favorably.

“They work these things out eventually,” he said. “I don’t expect it to be negative for our ranchers. At the end of the day, the free market allows things to happen because people want our goods and our products. We raise our animals better, safer and more humanely than any other place in the world.”

Initially, many people believed there should be a marketing edge with COOL, and that may still be so for some, Hanebut said.

“But no cookie cutter approach from the federal government fits every situation,” he added. “For farmers who want to embrace it as a way to market their products, that is great. We are just glad we are not being told you shall do it this way. We appreciate and applaud this action by Senator Hoeven, and are happy that we are looking at turning the clock back to a more voluntary thing. We are happy Senator Hoeven has taken the lead on this and hope he is successful.”