Has any proposed ‘benefit’ to consumers and industry ever disappointed both its proponents and opponents? It’d be tough to find a law that failed worse than Country of Origin Labeling.

It’s all over.

For now, anyway.

After losing both in federal district court and in the federal appellate courts, the meat industry filed notice in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to drop its lawsuit, American Meat Institute, et al. v. U.S. Department of Agriculture, et al. The First Amendment challenge to COOL was rejected in federal district court and in an appeal to a three-judge panel and to the entire D.C. Circuit Court.

That hardly ends the controversy, though. USDA has appealed that decision, and the World Trade Organization still must resolve the remaining issues — that is, unless Congress gets involved in re-writing the original rules. The WTO previously stated that COOL places an unfair burden on meat producers in Canada and Mexico.

Supporters of the law were upbeat about the end of the lawsuit.

“It’s a huge relief to know that common-sense labeling laws, like COOL, can prevail in court despite the deep pockets of the multinationals,” National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said in a statement.

Johnson called the COOL lawsuit’s dismissal “a clear and indisputable win for American consumers and producers.”

Industry representatives, however, held out hope that Congress may indeed ride to the rescue.

“While we remain disappointed with the court’s ruling on country of origin labeling, we agree with the World Trade Organization’s assessment that the U.S. rule is out of compliance with its trade obligations to Canada and Mexico,” North American Meat Institute CEO Barry Carpenter said in a statement, noting that a “statutory fix” would be needed to bring the U.S. industry into compliance. He said that the industry remains committed to “working with Congress to fix COOL once and for all.”

Good luck with that.

As bad as it gets

My question is this: Has any law ever managed to cause more controversies, trigger more concerns and utterly fail to deliver the touted benefits to its supporters more so than COOL?

  • The Canadians claimed that their meat industry was losing as much as $1 billion a year due to the country of origin labeling rules, which inhibited the free flow of livestock and meat products between their country and the United States.
  • Meanwhile, U.S. ranchers and feeders had expectations that COOL would serve to improve their market shares as a result of consumers’ desire to “buy Made in USA” products — or at least that the knowledge of a meat product’s origin might sway purchasers, price, quality and other variables being equal.
  • USDA officials, of course, had challenged the industry’s lawsuit and argued, unsuccessfully to date, that recent revisions to the COOL regulations adequately addressed the problems cited by Canada and Mexico.
  • Meatpackers, processors, marketers and retailers complained vehemently about increased production and handling costs as a result of the systems required to track and segregate product from its source.
  • Consumer groups were unhappy with the entire industry for all the bickering, stalling and in-fighting that has accompanied what is now a 12-year old initiative that to most activists was seen as a no-brainer.

Nobody loves COOL.

In fact, a new study by Auburn University agricultural economist C. Robert Taylor, which was commissioned by the National Farmers’ Union — a supporter of the rule — determined that the regulations have “not had a negative impact on the cattle trade between Canada, the United States and Mexico, according to a report in Fortune.

“COOL has not had a significant negative effect on the price paid for imported slaughter cattle relative to comparable domestic cattle,” Taylor wrote. “COOL has not had a statistically significant negative effect on imports of feeder cattle relative to U.S. feeder cattle placements.” The losses were judged instead to be a consequence of what Taylor labeled “turbulent economic times.” and presented data that COOL has had a negligible impact on imports from Canada and Mexico.

Some in the agriculture community feared threats by the Canadian government that it would apply tariffs to hundreds of American-made products if the country of origin labeling rules were not rescinded.

The lawsuit against imposition of COOL was led by the North American Meat Institute, claiming that the government does not have a constitutional right to force the meat industry to label products against its will.

Unfortunately, since the day this ill-advised measure was first proposed, the issue hasn’t been about rights, but about all that’s wrong with COOL.

From everyone’ perspective.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.