COOL: Battle lines have been drawn, Ft. Sumter comes to mind (commentary)

Published on: September 14, 2013

The various pieces and parts of the American beef, pork and poultry businesses have often participated in some nasty internecine skirmishes.  Special interest groups, after all, are organized for one primary purpose: to protect a special interest.  And this COOL war, like the American Civil War, has familial groups choosing up sides and 'outside interests' watching closely. 

To refresh your memory, country of origin labeling (COOL), first jostled the spirit of  the American fresh meat business over a decade ago.  "Label your products according to where they came from" was the simplified definition of the U.S. Department of Agriculture rule.  Meat from Canadian hogs and cattle, for instance, had to be called "Product of Canada," which meant a lot of sorting-in-the-pen and a pile of extra paperwork by-the-pin.  The inevitable result was fewer purchases of Canadian livestock by American-based businesses that wanted to avoid the added cost of the extra work involved.  Those lost sales made the Canadians cry 'Fowl!" or something similar and they took the U.S. to the World Trade Organization (WTO), claiming unfair ROT (restraint of trade). 

WTO agreed. The U.S. lost and USDA was forced to rethink the rule.  What they developed was a different plan very much like the original - same song, second verse.  And thus the saber rattling got to be very serious.  A lawsuit with a first step of asking for an injunction against the every-so-slightly revised plan was launched by the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn., National Pork Producers Council, American Meat Institute, American Association of Meat Processors, North American Meat Assn. and Southwest Meat Assn. 

Those 'outside interests'? Co-signers of the suit were the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, Canadian Pork Council and Mexico's National Confederation of Livestock Organizations. 

Quickly escalating the conflict were the United States Cattlemen's Assn. (USCA), National Farmers Union, the American Sheep Industry Association and the Consumer Federation of America which asked to become defendant-intervenors in the lawsuit.  Standing not so far in the background was R-CALF.  Growers were lining up on one side; processors were standing on the other.  It is quickly becoming a brother-against-brother thing.  Immense legal fire power is being brandished and dire threats are being made. 

The USCA-led group's intervenor status was granted and the motion for an injunction was denied.  Fighting what might be a losing battle but signaling the war was not about to be abandoned, the AMI-led group appealed but it looks like labeling might have to start. The USDA rule does give a six month window for compliance, however.  New labeling of any consequence might not appear until February.  The legal issues will stretch a lot farther into the future. 

Canada went back to WTO and another lengthy debate about American trade practices will begin on foreign shores.  Meanwhile, U.S. courts will try to decide if the USDA plan has legal merit.  The nightmare outcome, of course, would be American courts blessing the plan while the WTO says it's unfair.  The resulting trade war between the U.S., Canada and Mexico would be ugly and disastrous to the economies of all three North American nations.  

Speaking for the intervenor group, USCA president Jon Wooster said, "We will actively participate in the appeal process to defend the correctness of the district court's denial of the preliminary injunction motion.  We strongly believe that the American consumer has a right to know where their meat is from and U.S. livestock producers have the right to differentiate their product in the marketplace as to its origin.  USDA.'s May 23 revision to COOL regulations improves the information available to consumers, hence reducing confusion on where meat products are from and offers U.S. livestock producers an important opportunity to differentiate their product.  

A more succinct J. Patrick Boyle, president and CEO of AMI, said, “We disagree strongly with the court’s decision and believe that several aspects of the ruling are susceptible to challenge. We intend to pursue them on appeal.”

And what did USDA secretary Thomas Vilsack say? "We are going to be faithful to the rule. It's a battle we are going to continue to fight."

He and his successor will have a long battle on their hands. Vilsack said the WTO challenge will likely not be resolved until 2015 because of procedural time frames and appeals of preliminary rulings.

The internecine COOL civil war has begun, Ft. Sumter has been bombarded .  Let's hope it doesn't do permanent harm to the participants on both sides.  At the very least, a lot of hard feelings will be left as both groups hurl epithets over the ramparts. 

*Chuck Jolley is president of Jolley & Associates, a marketing and public relations firm that concentrates on the food industry.

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  1. Julie Zavon says:

    How would meat be labeled if the animal lived part of it's life in one country and party in another?

  2. Dave says:

    Mexican cattle carrying TB, Canadian cattle carrying BSE. No safety issue here! The cattle don't meet USDA standards. My grocer will not take Mexican produce, says it will not sell and customers don't want Canadian beef. Received over 1900 signatures at the State Fair in favor of COOL, most of them were urban women.

  3. turkey 1 says:

    i see no net value for food safety for the US Consumer in this fight. any meats sold in the US must meet the same USDA food safety standards. this fight is strictly the result of a trade war wherby the USCA wishes to keep Canadian product from competing with their product, which by the way they end up exporting to Canada and Mexico in large amounts. we are in a world market, get used to it and lets compete on a level playing field. beef is beef, unless you have a truly nich product other than from being on one side of the border or the other.