NCBA Op-Ed: The fallacy of COOL

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With the recent action by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in releasing their amended Mandatory Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) rule, it seems COOL is once again the talk of the sale barn and the cafe. That has me thinking quite a bit about the subject and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s (NCBA) policy on COOL. The NCBA sets its policy at the beginning of every year, with members and state affiliates bringing forward resolutions to be discussed in committees made up of cattle producers, and then finally voted on by a mail-in ballot sent to all 24,000-plus members of NCBA. And it is well known that NCBA has long been opposed to any mandatory country of origin labeling rule or proposal.

It seems as if the first thing that is said whenever COOL is brought up is, “I am proud of the cattle my family raises,” and that is absolutely correct. I too am very proud of my family’s operation and all the work my wife and I, with our children and grandchildren, do to produce great beef. But a mandatory labeling program run by the federal government is not the way I want to showcase my product and add value. Labeling programs can work - just look at Certified Angus Beef or Safeway’s “Rancher’s Reserve.” These are marketing programs that are run by individuals with a specific interest and that is to promote and sell more beef to put on dinner tables across America. That is why these programs are successful. Additionally there is a tremendous amount of time and effort that goes into marketing these programs to the consumer.. But slapping on a label that says where this product was born, raised and slaughtered does not achieve the same result. In fact, a study by Kansas State University conducted in November of 2012 titled Mandatory County of Origin Labeling: Consumer Demand Impact made some key findings on this subject. The study found that mere country-of-origin information has not impacted consumer demand for beef or other covered products, and in fact, that many consumers are unaware labeling information exists. This is the issue with allowing the federal government to mandate a marketing program - it is not in their wheelhouse. Marketing at its very core relies on the distinction of one product from another. Neither USDA, nor any other government agency, can make that distinction based on origin labeling.

Lately, there have been studies touted by proponents of labeling that indicate consumers prefer to see country of origin labels. These studies are nothing new, and the Kansas State study found the same preference. However, what is interesting is that even with COOL in full force since the 2008 Farm Bill, only the Kansas State study questioned participants on their current knowledge of labeling and they found an overwhelming majority were not even aware labeling information was currently in place. If you ask a customer, “Do you want more information on this product?” what would you expect the answer to be? Affirmative, we all enjoy more information but the question is, how much are we willing to pay for it? Research has shown that when specifically directed to the label, a “Product of North America” label is approximately as valued by our customers as a “Product of the USA” label.

Finally, both the current and the amended COOL rules add costs to cow/calf producers, feeders, processors and retailers. These costs are then passed on to the consumer. But what is the consumer getting for these costs? As near as I can tell, nothing. There are already well supported marketing programs that benefit the consumer. The Office of Management and Budget has found that the amended final COOL rule will have a “significant” economic impact on the industry, in excess of $100 million. These costs will come in the form of increased tracking of animals and increased costs of physically printing and attaching labels.

But why not label beef? After all, nearly everything we buy is labeled. My shirt says product of Indonesia, my fuel containers were products of China and the distributor cap I bought for my Chevy was a product of Mexico. But my shirt does not say that the cotton is grown in USA, spun in China, woven in Vietnam and sewn in Indonesia. And to add another wrinkle, unlike cotton, cattle are not a static product. I can tell you first hand, cattle don’t stay where I put them. They move, they roam, they mix and lose ear tags. That bag of cotton stays just where it’s put. But you know, in the end, when I go to town to buy that shirt, I don’t prefer a shirt made in Indonesia. In fact I don’t even look at the tag. I know what shirt I like. Indonesia did not do anything to entice me or my wife to purchase that shirt. That company is the one that spent the money marketing that shirt, they’re the ones that sponsored the rodeo I take my family to in the summer and they’re the ones that stand behind the quality of their product. It’s often said that we live in a global economy, but even international, can in fact be local. We have many members across the country that buy feeder cattle from Canada or Mexico or graze cattle across international lines. Those cattle may spend some time on grass, or go straight to feed in the Midwest, then go on to slaughter here or elsewhere. We offer the consumer no advantage in labeling those animals any differently than we do a steer born, raised, and slaughtered right here at home.

What consumers actually want is pretty simple - they want a safe product for them and their families and they want a consistent and enjoyable eating experience. We all know beef knocks it out of the park when it comes to meeting customer demands on both those fronts. So rather than bicker over COOL, let’s work together to continue to improve beef safety and maintain quality through producer led, consumer minded programs like Beef Quality Assurance and other Checkoff programs to ensure we continue to deliver on that great beef experience.

Source: Scott George, NCBA President

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Montana  |  May, 31, 2013 at 11:35 AM

Where's the verification system behind COOL? There's nothing to stop me buying cattle out of Mexico, grazing them over the border in Canada then putting the finish on them for a couple of weeks in my own feedlot, shipping them to a US slaughter plant then proudly stamping my COOL with "USA", 'cause that's the last place they've been and you can't prove any different. So if it means another nickle or dime a cwt to ink "USA" on a label, I'm all for it. Just don't install any nosy snoopy verification systems like NAIS. You will just have to trust me. Oh, and I have a nice older bridge to sell you, too, by the way. Cheap if a cash deal.

oregon  |  May, 31, 2013 at 12:01 PM

The NCBA tries to claim they have over 24,000 members supporting their packer lobbied opinions. As a rancher who opposes many of their anti U.S. producer trade issues, I've been trying for years to get them to quit sending me their "Beef Today" magazine. They won't because every issue they send out is probably counted as a membership. This is just one of the ways we as U.S. cattle producers are being misrepresented by the NCBA.

Montana  |  May, 31, 2013 at 08:11 PM

I think the NCBA should be weaned from the beef checkoff. The NCBA budget is made up of 85% checkoff and 15% from their membership. The NCBA and the meat packers want to be able to import cheaper foreign beef and make U.S. consumers think it is U.S. beef. That's not right!

MT  |  June, 01, 2013 at 11:04 AM

COOL might create a whole new boutique marketplace. If we could convince shoppers that beef from, say Iceland, is the very finest and most valuable then from out here in Wyoming I will just slap on the "Made in Iceland" COOL and jack up the price. No one but me would be the wiser and many a shopping fool would be conspicuously parted from her money (and she would be proud to be publicly scammed in order to be recognized as trendy and..."cool")! So, lets all be COOL.

Tom McK    
TEXAS  |  June, 04, 2013 at 06:52 AM

As a producer,I disagree w/ NCBAs' position on COOL. I believe the avg. consumer buys US products, first. The more available information about the product, the more inclined the consumer is to buy it. Consumers are much more savvy than they have ever been due mainly to the various social medias. Truthful, honest info, for a change, from the meat industries would certainly be very different and a positive move on their part.

SD  |  June, 04, 2013 at 10:09 AM

How many seedstock (bulls and cows) producers live in Canada and US cattlemen proudly buy their bulls, cows? How many US seedstock producers happily sell their bulls and cows to ranchers in Mexico and Canada.....and you have the nerve to tell them that their beef produed with YOUR bulls and cow genetics are not good enough for US consumers???? You will take their money, but not their beef???? Nice gimick, so long as it pays you well! They may rebel some day, maybe sooner than later on that deal. NCBA DOES have all the cattle producer members it claims. Some of our families have been members in three centuries, now! We are cattle producers first, last and always. We run that organizations, thank you! Any Beef Checkoff dollars NCBA uses are spent on Beef Checkoff Projects approved by the Cattlmens' Beef Board (governing body of the national branch of the Beef Checkoff) and work is done by the Federation of State Beef Councils Division of NCBA. All Checkoff projects are on a cost recovery only basis, with NO profit to any group doing the work. Any money spent by/for the Policy Division of NCBA is from dues and income from the business members who desire the contact with their customers, rancher members of NCBA. Beef Today is NOT the NCBA magazine, and it is usually a free magazine sent to farmers and ranchers who likely use products of the advertisers in the magazine. How can anyone fail to know that fact about many of the 'ag magazines' we receive, often with a questionnaire about what we raise and products we buy???? For the record, I and many other beef producers do not mind importing a little lean beef from 'good' beef producer countries, to mix with the fat some of you still are producing in excess.

SD  |  June, 04, 2013 at 10:13 AM

continued. Importing some beef helps open more markets to EXPORT of high quality US produced beef like my family raises. Whether I or someone else exports that beef, we still make more money than if we closed our borders to all imports and exports of beef. Obviously, rules need to be followed for both imports and exports of beef, and they are! We probably could live as Luddites and be happy for a while, but we wouldn't be gaining much wisdom or showing concern for our fellow man in that lifestyle.

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