Country Of Origin Labeling … Not COOL

In a previous blog I mentioned Country Of Origin Labeling amendments (COOL) in passing but now I want to focus on them just a bit more. Scott George, president of National Cattlemen’s Beef Association recently wrote an article focusing on “The Fallacy of COOL“. In his article, Mr. George points out some interesting aspect of the COOL amendments. NCBA has been opposed to any mandatory COOL rule or proposal for quite some time. Why? When you first think of COOL rules don’t you think it protects the beef produced in the home country? Well, may be it does but may be it hurts beef and other commodities a lot more than it helps.

If the USA mandates COOL, think about how other countries, especially Canada, could target and boycott US commodities. That could cripple the market. There would be an excess of products that consumers in the US wouldn’t buy and the exports markets would be effectively shut down. That is a problem for everyone. Our economy is still struggling and we need growth in the market to continue the recovery process. A set back in export markets would prolong the recession period and create a lot more problems for the US to manage. Personally, I don’t think consumers really care WHERE their beef is produced. Let’s be honest, people want to go to the grocery store and pick out steaks and NOT know where that steak came from or how it got to the store, they just expect it to be there when they want it. I think consumers want to know that their food is SAFE. Any imported foods, including beef, are inspected to meet USDA standards for the US production system … in other words, the food is safe. Additionally, the US doesn’t import a lot of beef. Mexico and Canada are the primary sources of imported beef so we still have North American produced beef.

Mr. George continues in his article that a mandatory labeling program run by the federal government does not showcase his product and add value. I could not agree more. If I am going to pay a premium price for a commodity, I expect it to have added value and I don’t believe that COOL does that. Labeling programs are much more effective. Look at Certified Angus Beef or Sterling Silver. These are marketing programs run by individuals with the specific interest to promote and sell more beef to put on dinner tables across America. There is a tremendous amount of time, effort, and resources put into marketing these programs to consumers and consumers have come to expect a certain level of quality or satisfaction from these products.

Further, country of origin information has not influenced consumer demand for beef or other covered products. Many consumers are unaware such labeling information exists. Marketing relies on the distinction of one product from another, and no government agency can make that distinction based on origin labeling. Mr. George also points out that consumers want more information, we all do, but questions how much we are willing to pay for it. Research has shown that when consumers are specifically directed to the label, a “Product of North America” label is as valued by beef consumers as “Product of USA” labels. Both current and proposed amendments to COOL labeling requirements add costs to cow/calf producers, feeders, processors, and retailers, Which means that the higher costs will be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. What are we getting for these higher prices? Nothing but a few words on a label that frankly don’t mean anything to me. Final COOL rulings may have an impact on the industry to the tune of more than $100 million, costs that come in the form of increased animal tracking and increased costs of physically printing and attaching labels.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that we pass the proposed COOL rules. The first problem I see with it is that cattle like to roam … meaning that just because I put them in a pasture does not mean they will stay there. Cattle will move, roam, mix, and they inevitably lose ear tags. The second problem I see is the amount of business that Canadian and mid-western beef producers do with one another. Basically I am saying that I think COOL will be more harmful to American beef producers and Canadian beef producers than it will bring good.

What consumers want is pretty simple … they want a safe product for themselves and their families. (Duh!!) Consumers want safe products with a consistent and enjoyable eating experience. (Duh!! Isn’t this what we look for every time we eat?) The take home message here is that we should stop bickering over COOL and focus on continuing to improve beef safety and maintaining quality through producer-led, consumer-driven programs like Beef Quality Assurance and other Checkoff funded programs.

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