IT has been a contentious issue for the past three farm bills, and how to handle mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL) for meat products lived up to its historical nature this go around, too.
Livestock powerhouse groups typically don't ask for much baseline money but, rather, policies that help them stay profitable. What they've asked for, they usually received. This time, however, they were the sole agricultural dissenters going into the final farm bill approval process.
Never mind that for the first time ever, the farm bill established a permanent livestock disaster assistance program that allocates more than $5 billion to help producers who are affected by floods, blizzards, droughts and other disasters. The bill also improves the Livestock Forage Program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and various livestock health initiatives.
It wasn't enough for groups such as the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. (NCBA), National Pork Producers Council, National Chicken Council, National Turkey Federation and North American Meat Assn.
NCBA president Scott George said the disaster provisions are appreciated but act as more of a Band-Aid while a train of retaliatory threats approaches if the World Trade Organization again finds the U.S. COOL rule to be non-compliant.
George said since the new rules went into effect last May, producers are seeing lower profits as processors and retailers pass down the costs the new labeling creates.
National Farmers Union (NFU) vice president of government relations Chandler Goule, who has been involved in COOL negotiations in past farm bills in which the different camps were forced into a room to resolve their differences, said the same wasn't true this year.
Last year, the U.S. Trade Representative tried to get everyone in the negotiating room, but the only thing suggested was a full repeal, Goule said.
"NFU actually suggested to USTR some changes we could live with, but since the other side was not willing to compromise, nothing happened there," he explained.
Meat groups said they "offered many solutions" in final negotiations, "and all were rejected." NCBA and NFU both declined to reveal specific possibilities.
For now, the one thing that appears to be off the table is a full repeal. Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) said the votes "were not there in either body" for a full repeal of COOL.
House Agriculture Committee chair Frank Lucas (R., Okla.) explained that for the livestock industry to ask Congress to advance a total repeal of COOL when language wasn't approved by either chamber, having that drastic of language in the original farm bills was too much.
"This fight has to be fought at the subcommittee level. The groundwork hadn't been laid for that" change, he said, noting, though, that legislators are "chomping at the bit" to hold hearings on the topic and advance legislation.
On the House floor, Rep. Jim Costa (D., Cal.) announced that he has drafted bipartisan legislation to fix COOL. Staff indicated that Costa and Rep. Jim Conaway (R., Texas) are working on finalizing legislative text to fix COOL and plan to introduce it in the coming weeks.
Stabenow added that there's still time to make changes to COOL if needed. WTO will make a decision on the merits of the case in mid-February, allowing another chance for an appeal; an arbitration panel will have to approve any retaliatory actions if proposed.