The dispute over mandatory versus voluntary country-of-origin labeling for food products continues. Provisions for mandatory COOL were included in the 2002 Farm Bill, and the law currently is scheduled to take effect on Sept. 30, 2006. Supporters of voluntary COOL had hoped Congress would adopt a bill calling for voluntary COOL, introduced by House Ag Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Ranking Minority Member Charles Stenholm (D-Texas), for inclusion in the 2005 omnibus spending bill. Congress did not, however, add the voluntary measures to the spending bill, which was completed on Nov. 20. The industry is sharply divided on the issue, with groups such as NCBA and AMI lobbying to keep COOL voluntary, while others such as the National Farmers Union and R-CALFUSA support mandatory labeling laws.

Following are some comments from organizations on either side of the issue, in response to news of the 2005 spending bill.

From the American Meat Institute:

We are disappointed that legislation to implement voluntary instead of mandatory country-of-origin labeling was not passed by the Congress in this session, but we commend and thank those who supported its passage.

Country-of-origin labeling is one of the most costly and cumbersome pieces of legislation ever introduced. First year implementation costs are estimated to be $3.9 billion. While proponents “package” it as a consumer right-to-know law, meat is covered under the law, but not poultry. And retail stores are covered, but not restaurants. The fact is, this law really is an anti-import law aimed at creating unfounded concerns about imported products. All meat products sold in the United States are inspected for safety regardless of their country-of-origin.

Furthermore, there is no reliable evidence that consumers want country-of-origin labeling or are willing to pay more for it. In fact, when the International Food Information Council polled consumers in January 2004 about whether there was anything they’d like to see on food labels that currently isn’t there, less than 0.7 percent of the people surveyed named country-of-origin information as something they would like to see added. Three-quarters of respondents indicated that there wasn’t any additional information they’d like to see appear.

From the National Farmers Union:

National Farmers Union congratulated congressional appropriators for resisting a repeal of mandatory country-of-origin food labeling in the omnibus spending package. 

“We appreciate the fact that Congress has again chosen to keep COOL,” says NFU President Dave Frederickson. “Numerous farm and consumer groups are united in support of this marketing and informational tool. With this overwhelming support, it is astonishing to me that there are a few groups that represent importers, who are still working to kill this beneficial law.”

Opponents of mandatory COOL, which was included in the 2002 farm law, had initially planned to include an amendment to the 2005 omnibus appropriations bill that would repeal the law and replace it with a voluntary system. National Farmers Union and 94 other farm and consumer organizations had distributed a letter in opposition to the amendment on Nov. 16.

From the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association

A bipartisan and widely supported bill which would have created an alternative approach to country of origin labeling failed to get attached to the 2005 omnibus spending bill as Congress wrapped up their debate on Nov. 20. 

   “We are very disappointed that in the closing days of this session, Congress was unable to include in its omnibus package the bill which would have put in place a producer-driven and consumer-friendly labeling program,” says Bryan Dierlam, acting executive director of legislative affairs at NCBA. “It is unfortunate that some members of Congress continue to support a law that will cost America’s family ranchers billions of dollars in compliance costs that will eventually be passed back to consumers.” 

NCBA members have adopted policy supporting a labeling program which is market-driven and producer-led.  Cattlemen remain dedicated to working with Congress, producers, retailers, and consumers to develop a beneficial country-of-origin labeling program that adds true value and avoids excessive cost to producers and consumers.