When Congress returns to the nation’s capital next week, let’s hope they fail to act on one issue important to farmers and ranchers in California and that issue is country of origin labeling (COOL). The future for California farmers and ranchers depends on our ability to label the high quality products we produce in the grocery store and we now have that ability through mandatory country of origin labeling (COOL). Despite this fact, Congress is on the verge of repealing a popular meat labeling law that farmers, ranchers and consumers from around the country fought for years to enact.
Given that this Congress has failed to address a host of critical issues including all the required annual spending bills, an agreement on the debt ceiling and other time sensitive issues that require action, I and other farmers and ranchers will urge lawmakers to back away from the COOL issue.
Earlier this year, by more than a two thirds vote, the U.S. House voted to repeal mandatory country of origin labeling of meat. I am disappointed to report that nearly every member of Congress from the Central Valley voted for repeal of this important meat labeling law. The number of members who voted to repeal COOL demonstrates the tremendous influence of meat packers on our democratic process. In the Senate there is now a voluntary meat labeling law which might sound better, but repeals mandatory country of origin labeling of meat all the same.
Members of Congress contend that they acting in response to the challenge brought by Canada and Mexico to the U.S. meat labeling law before the World Trade Organization (WTO), claiming that it caused $3.8 billion in damages due to a decline in cattle and hog trade. However analysis from the U.S. Trade Representative concluded that the potential damages were actually a mere 2.4 percent of the $3.8 billion damage claim, more like $43 million for Canada and $47 million for Mexico. It is critical that Congress allow the WTO process to play out and not get involved in this ongoing trade dispute. Congress has actually gone one step further by repealing labeling of ground meat, pork and chicken which were never part of the WTO challenge, making it all the more evident that opponents of meat labeling are exploiting unwarranted fears about trade retaliation.
California farmers and ranchers have strongly supported mandatory labeling of meat for many years. In 2004 we worked together alongside consumer groups to pass legislation to mandate labeling of meat at the state level. The meat labeling legislation enjoyed strong support from farmers, ranchers and consumers and passed through the state legislature only to be vetoed by then Governor Schwarzenegger.
After the setback at the state level, we joined with farmers, ranchers and consumers from around the country to call for mandatory country of origin labeling at the federal level. We worked with a broad coalition of organizations to pass mandatory labeling legislation in the 2002 and 2008 farm bills. Now when you or I go to the grocery store we have information about where the meat we buy was born, raised and processed. The labeling repeal legislation would not apply to the labeling of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seafood which will continue despite the ongoing efforts in Congress to gut meat labeling laws. Today we are able to make informed choices about the meat we buy, but if mandatory COOL of meat is repealed we will be denied this fundamental right.
With so many other important unresolved issues on their plate, why would members of Congress vote to repeal a popular meat labeling law that is strongly supported by farmers, ranchers and consumers across the country? Let’s hope they do the right thing and stay out of it.
— Joaquin Contente, president, California Farmers Union