Commentary: COOL confusion

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Does mandatory country of origin labeling (COOL) increase consumer demand for U.S. beef? R-CALF USA believes it does. A recent Kansas State University study indicates it does not. And either way, the World Trade Organization (WTO) says the United States needs to modify the rule by May 23, 2013 to comply with trade agreements.

COOL has returned to the news lately, due to the release of the K-State study and the WTO’s ruling on the deadline.

Back in July, the WTO issued its final ruling in favor of a complaint from Canada and Mexico claiming our COOL rules violate previous trade agreements by according less favorable treatment to imported livestock than to similar domestic livestock. The K-State study found that consumers are largely unaware of the meat-labeling rules, don’t pay much attention to the labels and most do not rely on them for purchasing decisions.

The two documents crossed paths this week when R-CALF issued a news release attacking the K-State study, saying it conflicts with the WTO findings. It is not surprising that R-CALF would stand up for COOL, as the group has supported the mandate all along. It is surprising though, that they would use the WTO ruling to support their position.

First, R-CALF has disputed the WTO ruling all along, and has joined a group of plaintiffs led by the Made in the USA Foundation in a legal challenge against it.

Second, R-CALF claims in its release that the WTO ruling means COOL has boosted demand for U.S. beef. "The WTO clearly sided with Canada and Mexico because it found that the demand for imported cattle - and necessarily the beef from imported cattle - was reduced by COOL," says R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard. "This is exactly what we expected and intended COOL to do. U.S. cattlemen expected U.S. meatpackers, which are the cattlemen's consumers, to prefer to slaughter U.S.-origin cattle to satisfy the retail customers’ demand for beef that is labeled both with a USDA inspection sticker and a U.S.-origin label.

"If the KSU study is accurate, then the WTO ruling is a sham, and vice-versa,” he adds.

Actually, the two documents do not conflict, because they address different issues. The K-State study surveyed consumers, while the WTO report examined barriers to imports. In its ruling, the WTO writes: “The COOL measure has a detrimental impact on imported livestock because its recordkeeping and verification requirements create an incentive for processors to use exclusively domestic livestock, and a disincentive against using like imported livestock.”

The closest the WTO ruling comes to addressing U.S. consumers is to say “although a large amount of information must be tracked and transmitted by upstream producers for purposes of providing consumers with information on origin, only a small amount of this information is actually communicated to consumers in an understandable or accurate manner, including because a considerable proportion of meat sold in the United States is not subject to the COOL measure's labeling requirements at all.”

So, according to the WTO, packers have processed fewer imported cattle because COOL has made it more difficult and more expensive to do so, not because of consumer preferences. This trend has affected supplies of beef from imported cattle available to consumers. A reduction in supplies of imported beef, caused by upstream challenges and expenses, does not mean consumer demand for imported beef has declined. Nor does it mean consumer demand for domestic beef has improved.


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Cole    
Katy, TX  |  December, 10, 2012 at 09:18 AM

If the U.S. doesn't get some good consistent rain, perceived import barriers won't matter. Cattle have to come from somewhere there is rain. Do we get beef from China? They have been doing weather manipulating with cloud seeding.

DebbieLB    
Kansas  |  December, 10, 2012 at 11:24 AM

Thank you for this clarification! I was absolutely stymied by the correlations R-CALF was trying to draw. I am concerned that WITHOUT more imports, the price of beef will continue to rise, pricing us out of the market for consumers! In the long-term, they will eat less beef, and that means less money going to my pocket ultimately. We need to look long-term and globally, and not just short-term and in our own small neighborhood.

Sirloin    
Lyons, NY  |  December, 10, 2012 at 12:15 PM

Cattle raised in the U.S. should be label product of USA! not necessarily cattle born in the U.S. Origin labeling should be a voluntary program that will attract those consumers that may associate a higher value knowing the origin by birth under a branded name product. Many consumers quite honestly only care about the cost of of beef as a protein source and can not afford the higher cost associated with application of this regulation.

Sam    
Ohio  |  December, 10, 2012 at 02:09 PM

R-calf and Cool did not add value by labeling. What they did add was red tape and cost that got pushed back on the producers. Its a lose lose. If COOL had any real value someone will lable it as such on their own.

maxine    
SD  |  December, 10, 2012 at 06:12 PM

Great comments! The clarification is enlightening, and not at all surprising that RCALF would attempt a spin to make themselves appear 'right' while blowing smoke, as usual. There are many beef products available that ARE labelled with brand names and that one can learn producer of. The choices are the more important thing for all of us. Consumers have a choice: pay the price of information (origin) they want, or spend less and get tasty, SAFE, NUTRITIOUS beef from conventional sources. AND most of that conventionally produced beef is at least as tasty as the 'hand made', pampered, organic, or whatever other label you prefer for you beef is. Beef already is one of the most regulated & inspected, products there is. Preserve us from ever more unnecessary "red tape" and costs!

thomas    
kansas  |  December, 27, 2012 at 11:02 AM

I am confused Debbie. One one hand you say if we do not have more imports beef prices will rise, yet on the other hand people will eat less and less money for you. How can you have it both ways? The cattle coming into the USA have a tag or brand, how hard is it to segregate these from USA cattle? Most consumers think the USDA label means USA beef. Are you in favor of keeping those people in the dark?

thomas    
kansas  |  December, 27, 2012 at 11:02 AM

I am confused Debbie. One one hand you say if we do not have more imports beef prices will rise, yet on the other hand people will eat less and less money for you. How can you have it both ways? The cattle coming into the USA have a tag or brand, how hard is it to segregate these from USA cattle? Most consumers think the USDA label means USA beef. Are you in favor of keeping those people in the dark?


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