This fight has gone on far too long! Not the battles between the cattlemen and HSUS, Sierra Club, PETA, or even chicken producers. No, I mean the fight among cattlemen over mandatory country-of-origin labeling (MCOOL). I have been witness to and part of this “Hatfield and McCoy” feud over the last two decades and can testify it has been a heck of a tussle.
I think it’s best to start with the premise that no one is blameless for this mess. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association was for MCOOL before it was against it. The packers shouted “NO!” so many times that everyone ceased to hear them. The National Farmers Union strove for total victory and when they had the chance to throw a bone to the losing side they turned their back – a grave mistake. Last but not least, R-CALF USA stalked MCOOL with an Ahab-like determination that led them to a predictable end. Indeed, many hands are sullied today.
We now find ourselves at a crossroads looking for direction. The industry has let this issue slip from its grasp and into the clutches of the World Trade Organization and a similarly unpredictable Federal court system. What a shameful predicament.
Let’s face it: MCOOL is a North American livestock problem. We have clumsily maneuvered ourselves into an internecine fight with our nearest neighbors, Mexico and Canada. We break bread with these people, we do business with them, they are our friends, they are fellow cattlemen! We need to stop this nonsense, and the sooner, the better – or we all will suffer.
It is time to pull together the principal actors who hold the ability to find a solution and work out a compromise, immediately. We have a chance in this Farm Bill to set this issue back onto a sane path. The two opposing sides are found in the cattle sector, and they know who they are. They need to come together forthwith, lock themselves in a room and resolve to not come out without a deal. The pork industry and the packers will play a role, peripherally, but make no mistake: the cowboys must settle this feud.
It comes down to this: MCOOL has evolved into a livestock issue – not a meat issue. US consumers seek to buy meat; they count on “us” – that is, a diverse, 21st Century, North American meat industry – to raise and process the livestock. I would be the first to acknowledge that a reasonable labeling regime for imported, consumer-ready meat is justifiable. But this isn’t about meat, or animals, from some far-off land coming into the US – it’s about product from our own continent. Let’s be serious…requiring labeling of meat from animals whose value was primarily added in this nation and – significantly – was packed under USDA inspection is beyond absurd. I’d say the prospect of labeling our product with a “born, raised and slaughtered” sticker is a joke, if it wasn’t such a tragically short-sighted debacle in the making.
And, by the way, don't blame USDA for this fiasco. It is undeniably of our own actions. The Department is just trying to comply with the law and the WTO rulings. That’s their job. It’s not the job of the Administration to fix our mistakes. No, the fault lies in ourselves.
So here we all stand, wobbly, bruised and bloody after 20 years of feuding over an issue that no one involved at the outset could have reasonably envisioned in its current form. It now is in the hands of faceless bureaucrats in Geneva and judges in the US Federal courts. It seems likely to me that nobody will totally approve of the outcome that stands to be forced on our industry. We've turned our neighbors into our adversaries, and rest assured theyare ready to retaliate against our intemperate action with tariffs. We are picking winners and losers in the US meat industry in the implementation of this law. It is not too much to say that for some US packing plants near the borders, the consequences are life-and-death. For what? That is the question – and it is one of enormous consequence.
Simply put, we need for reason to prevail, and to put this calamity behind us. We must accept our mistakes, tone down our rhetoric, and take responsibility for our industry. We have a window to come together during the Farm Bill conference between the House and Senate – in the representative forum where this sad saga began. Once that opportunity closes, our ability to control the outcome will be lost. And the fault will be all of ours to share.
I have no silver bullet. I have no specific solution in mind. I’m simply appealing to my fellow cattle-raising friends, no matter which side of this issue you’re on: call your leaders and urge them to work this dispute out, now. The situation is dire and the stakes for our industry are too high to do anything less. If we continue to fight, woe will befall us all.
(Chandler Keys is Principal of Keys Group, a lobbying and consulting firm to the livestock industry based in Washington, DC. Prior to starting Keys Group, he worked for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in the Nation’s Capital for more than two decades, and also worked for JBS, the world’s largest meatpacking firm.)