Few issues provoked as much controversy in Washington this past year as the country-of-origin labeling law, or COOL. Approved as part of the most recent farm bill, the new law was set to take effect next September.
But now its future is very much in doubt. Adamantly opposed by many elements in the food chain, opponents of COOL succeeded in denying the funding needed to implement the law. What's left now, besides the uncertainty, is the political jockeying and legislative shake-and-bake that will determine the law's future.
COOL requires retailers to label and keep records for unprocessed meats; seafood, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables; and peanuts as to their country of origin. Retailers would have 30 days to correct any violations or face a $10,000 fine.
Promoters of COOL say the measure gives consumers the ability to purchase goods grown or raised by U.S. producers. Detractors call the rule an onerous piece of legislation with lawsuit written all over it.
After sailing through Congress legislators and constituents began to raise red flags as the implementation date of September 30, 2004, drew closer. The General Accounting Office estimated the first year could cost everyone from farm gate to cash register $4 billion. And recently, the U.S. Small Business Administration came out with a study stating that all food retailers stand to suffer economic losses as a result of complying with COOL.
There were few if any objections from the fruit and vegetable industry but the loudest complaints came from mainstream meat producer groups, packers and grocery retailers. The National Cattleman's Beef Association, which initially supported the rule, believes the final version maximizes costs and minimizes benefits. Packers, like Tyson Fresh Meats, not wanting to be caught in the middle, have begun to ask suppliers to verify where cattle were born and raised. And the National Grocers Association has stated record keeping would be overly burdensome for retailers.
Even so,165 producer and consumer groups have come out in favor of mandatory COOL including the Catholic Rural Life Council, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and the Rancher's Cattleman Action Legal Fund.
In response, the U.S. House of Representatives stripped enforcement power from COOL by taking away its funding. This started what has become a delay in implementation that is predicted to last until 2006. In the meantime, a delegation led by House Agriculture Committee Chairman, Republican Congressman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, has begun the writing of a voluntary COOL provision. There is some sentiment that the entire measure should be scrapped.