It’s time for the Senate to follow the House and put the Country-of-Origin Labeling law in its final resting place: The museum of ill-advised, fully flawed, totally useless laws that need to go away.
The House has (finally) voted to repeal the Country-of-Origin labeling law, not because lawmakers finally understood how counterproductive those rules have been, but because of the potential impact of trade retaliation from Canada and Mexico has finally dawned on lawmakers.
The World Trade Organization rejected a U.S. appeal on revised COOL rules last month, and both countries announced they planned to ask WTO for permission to impose billions of dollars in tariffs on American exports.
That would be an unmitigated disaster.
But here’s the good news: The House vote was 300-131 in favor of repeal for COOL. Not even close. And it’s about time for Congress to scrap this ill-advised, poorly written, overly burdensome piece of utterly failed legislation.
Rather than re-writing the rules, Congress should simply scuttle the law. An outright repeal is important, because there is still misguided sentiment among some policymakers who equate COOL with a consumer right-to-know.
In fact, even though COOL was initially advanced by a segment of cattle producers convinced that a “Made in USA” label would allow U.S. beef to command a premium in the marketplace, putting cash into their pockets, that never happened — and it was never going to happen. People are too price-sensitive when buying food. Yet many COOL supporters initially fashioned their support in terms of consumer rights, and some still do.
For example: Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), told the Associated Press that repeal would be premature. “Our people deserve a right to know where their food is produced and where it comes from,” she said.
Why? I’d like to know. Why is it so important for shoppers cruising the meat case at their favorite supermarket to read a label that confirms what has been going on for decades: that the North American meat industry isn’t confined to the United States? Consumers care about price and quality (meaning taste and flavor), and to a lesser extent, about food safety.
They don’t care about the origin of their food products as long as those other variables are satisfied.
Consider the produce category. When was the last time you heard anyone — publicly or privately — complain about Mexican strawberries or Chilean grapes? Or how about bananas? They’re all imported! And nobody squawks, and nobody cares.
But don’t believe me that imported food has become totally acceptable. Here’s USDA’s official statement on the matter:
“U.S. consumers demand variety, quality, and convenience in the foods they consume. As Americans have become wealthier and more ethnically diverse, the American food basket reflects a growing share of tropical products, spices, and imported gourmet products. Seasonal and climatic factors drive U.S. imports of popular types of fruits and vegetables and tropical products, such as cocoa and coffee. In addition, a growing share of U.S. imports can be attributed to intra-industry trade, whereby agricultural-processing industries based in the United States carry out certain processing steps offshore and import products at different levels of processing from their subsidiaries in foreign markets.”
Translation: We’re buying and eating all kinds of food grown and processed in countries other than the United States. And that’s a good thing.
By the way, care to take a guess as to the relative value of imported meat products, versus imported “plant foods?” as of 2013 data, the total value of imported meat products and animal foods totaled more than $28.2 billion. But by comparison, what USDA categorizes as plant foods — primarily produce — totaled $70.2 billion, two-and-a-half times as much.
And when it comes to produce, our annual trade deficit — the value of our exports, versus the value of our imports — exceeds $11 billion a year.
As Americans, we don’t care about the country of origin when we’re buying food. It’s just not a consideration.
As the AP reported, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) told his fellow legislators that, “Although some consumers desire [country-of-origin labeling] information, there is no evidence to conclude that this mandatory labeling translates into market-measurable increases in consumer demand for beef, pork or chicken.”
Will COOL finally be given a proper burial?
In the Senate side, Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) has said he will move quickly to respond to the WTO ruling. Although he has yet to introduce a bill to kill COOL, he said that repeal “remains the surest way to protect the American economy” from retaliatory tariffs.
And to protect Americans from misguided labeling laws.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator