WHAT'S the bigger problem: consumers' right to know about the origins of their food, or penny-pinching meatpacking companies?
In the Nov. 8 edition of Feedstuffs, Chuck Jolley highlighted Canadian Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz's much-publicized opposition to country-of-origin labeling (COOL) and threats to tack on tariffs to many American agricultural products, not just meat, if the U.S. COOL law is not changed.
However, what was missing in Jolley's article was clarity on the process at the World Trade Organization and the real origins of the saber-rattling from Canada. The ire of our friends to the north ought to be directed towards the packers and processors who have stopped buying Canadian cattle — not American consumers.
The National Farmers Union (NFU) has been a proud supporter of COOL from its inception. This is a very clear issue: Consumers want to know where their food comes from, and our family farmer members are proud to have the fruits of their labor labeled as such.
Studies show that 90% of consumers want to know where their food comes from. After all, if your T-shirt is required to have a country-of-origin label, why shouldn't your T-bone steak?
NFU is not alone in this sentiment. In April 2013, 229 organizations from around the U.S. spoke out in favor of strong COOL rules. Many other WTO countries have enacted a form of COOL. In fact, Canada is among them.
According to documents at WTO, Canada requires country-of-origin labels on a number of products, such as dairy products, eggs and honey. In addition, Canada requires labels on certain imported (but not domestic) meat, maple products, fish, processed products, brandy, organic products and fresh fruit and vegetables.
WTO has never found the U.S. COOL law to be out of compliance. It was after a challenge by Canada and Mexico and four years of study that WTO found that the U.S. needed to change its implementation of COOL in 2012.
WTO never said the COOL law itself was non-compliant.
Bearing in mind the WTO ruling, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a new rule this past summer to bring COOL into compliance. It included a more descriptive label and went into effect Nov. 23. WTO is expected to pass judgment on the new labels in the spring of 2014, and signs point to a favorable review.
Because of the efforts of NFU and others, consumers in the U.S. now have descriptive and accurate country-of-origin labels on unprocessed meat and fish. Does Congress want to be on the wrong side of history and deprive consumers of their right to know?
If the U.S. backs down on a basic consumer information issue because of premature Canadian trade threats, a terrible precedent would be set.
Even though our friends to the north have been vocal in their threats about COOL — even going as far as lobbying U.S. lawmakers in Washington, D.C., for a full repeal of COOL before WTO can rule on the case — perhaps it's not fair to criticize them the most.
On Dec. 2, representatives from NFU, the U.S. Cattlemen's Assn. and Consumer Federation of America met with six members of the Canadian Parliament's House Agriculture Committee. They echoed many of their agriculture minister's arguments and cited the significant costs their farmers and ranchers would feel due to COOL. But is it really the U.S. COOL policy that's causing the trouble? Or is it the packers who will stop at nothing to obstruct COOL implementation?
After all, it was the decision of Tyson Foods to stop accepting Canadian cattle for processing, even though it has ample recordkeeping abilities and practices to identify the origins of individual animals. Plus, COOL only costs about one-third of a penny per pound of meat.
When asked why Tyson would stop buying Canadian cattle, a spokesman cited "warehousing capacity." How big are these labels and ink cartridges?
Now is not the time for Congress to start taking orders from Canada, and it's certainly not the time to allow packers to run roughshod over farmers and ranchers in both the U.S. and Canada. COOL must remain untouched in the farm bill so the WTO process may continue. Canadians ought to ask Tyson why it won't accept their cattle. Let's stop the threatening talk and confront the bigger problem of abusive market power by meatpackers.
*Roger Johnson is the 14th president of the National Farmers Union. Prior to that post, Johnson was agriculture commissioner in North Dakota for 12 years. His family farms in Turtle Lake, N.D.