Food safety activists and Democratic lawmakers have become increasingly critical of the government's effort to protect consumers from contaminated meat. Both activists and lawmakers are pushing legislation that would give the USDA more authority to recall contaminated meat and to shut down plants that violate safety laws.
While the source of the meat is probably not part of the safety problem, there are many who think identifying the origin of meat and other food is a good step toward making all who form the food chain more accountable.
Legislation in the 2002 Farm Law mandates country of origin labeling, also known as COOL. Such legislation has historically been fought by packers and welcomed by producers and consumer groups. But as the details of the rules have been more widely disseminated, support and opposition for labeling has become less defined, and the issue more debated.
Factors contributing to this phenomenon are the lack of Department of Agriculture rules concerning how verification of animals from conception to consumer should take place. And there are a plethora of non-verifiable guesses as to the cost of a mandatory country of origin labeling system. Labeling is currently voluntary until September of 2004.
The pork industry seems to be lining up along traditional fronts. Packers oppose the law citing cost concerns over record keeping, retooling to keep closer tabs on animals that pass through a facility and the actual printing of such a label. The National Pork Producers Council has also taken a stance against the labeling, citing a recent Iowa State University study which the council commissioned. The I-S-U analysis of two possible scenarios suggests labeling will increase production costs, reduce consumption, and cost the pork industry as a whole roughly one billion dollars. The U-S-D-A has made preliminary estimates that the entire COOL program for pork, beef, fish, lamb, produce, vegetables and peanuts would cost nearly two billion dollars.
On the opposite side of the fence is the Iowa Pork Producers Association, the largest state constituency of the N-P-P-C. The I-P-P-A joined other farm and consumer groups in refuting the U-S-D-As one-point-nine billion dollar labeling cost estimate. The groups accuse the agency of failing to account for tracking already required by the USDA and labeling required by some states.
COOL legislation has been supported by beef producers, but that support has turned to concern for some. Only animals born, raised and slaughtered in the U-S can be given a "Product of the U-S" label. Some cattle are imported from other countries and fed and finished domestically. Cattlemen are voicing concern over a possible loss of premium on these non-country specific animals. The anticipated premium for domestic product has been the driving force behind cattle producer support for COOL.
Hogs, on the other hand, are anticipated to have no premium. The aforementioned Iowa State study suggests consumers will NOT pay a premium for verified domestic pork tagged with a "Product of the U-S" label.