Rarely does a proposed regulation present a clear we-win, you-lose scenario. Usually, most laws or rulings offer something to like and something to loathe for all parties concerned.
Such was not the case with Country of Origin Labeling (COOL).
When the law was first proposed, it was tough to pretend it was anything other than a thinly disguised protection for domestic livestock producers. Although many marketing experts warned that its might not stimulate a migration of consumers to “Made in USA” meat products, a vocal segment of the cattle industry—cheered on by consumer groups always looking for their next crusade—pushed for and championed passage of the original COOL legislation.
There were three immediate problems: One, Canada and Mexico, our leading partners in meat trading, both objected and threatened to lodge a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO). Second, the logistics of implementation quickly became far more complex and onerous than anyone suspected. And third, the impact on consumers was best described as confusion, not confidence.
Although polling showed strong public support for country-of-origin labeling, the “yes” response pollsters elicited was a throwaway vote. Asking people if they want a theoretical benefit they believe has no consequences doesn’t truly predict behavior. But ask people if they think cops should arrest drivers who exceed the speed limit on the freeway, and you’ll get only grudging support, because drivers know the next speeder the cops catch could be them.
The original COOL labeling law for retail fresh meat products (poultry was excluded and foodservice was exempted) passed as part of the 2002 farm bill and was later expanded in the 2008 farm bill to include such foods as fresh fruits, nutsand vegetables.
Nightmare in the meat case
However, the one variable that was never understood by legislators—and equally misunderstood by consumers—was the complex nature of the U.S. meat processing industry. Few people on Capitol Hill were aware that much of the volume of what was the hot-selling new product—extra-lean ground beef—depended heavily on imported trimmings from Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Keeping track of where one-ton combos of manufacturing meat ended up by the time it was blended with several sources of commodity trimmings proved to be a nightmare, and the resulting retail labeling was confusing to most and offensive to many shoppers who thought that package of hamburger in the supermarket case they were used to buying was pure 100% All-American beef.