Out of their concern for food safety and their tendency to support American producers, consumers have long supported Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) of meat products.

But those “Made in the USA” signs and labels have been missing or suspect ever since Congress bowed in 2015 to the World Trade Organization (WTO), which ruled COOL as enacted by USDA was a non-tariff barrier to trade.

The WTO agreed with Canada and Mexico, ruling COOL imposed extra costs on the USA’s two neighboring countries that they could recoup through punitive tariffs. Those tariffs might have cost other U.S. billions of dollars over time and that’s why Congress called the whole thing off.

Since late 2019, America’s farmers and ranchers have divided up into warring camps over whether the U.S. should adopt another mandatory COOL labeling system or simply police when the “Product of the USA” labels may be used on a voluntary basis.

In recent testimony before the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said the USDA was going to try and “thread the needle” by limiting the use of “Product of the USA” label to animals that are slaughtered and processed in the U.S.

Perdue said USDA wants transparency in labeling so the consumer knows what they are getting and producers get value for the cattle they’ve “grown and processed.”

Bill Bullard, R-CALF USA CEO, said Perdue’s COOL scheme is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Speaking to a Red Bluff, CA meeting with 75 northern California cattlemen, Bullard said there are two types of country-of-origin labels. A mandatory system, listing where an animal was “born, raised and slaughtered,” helps the entire live cattle supply chain, he said. The other, disclosing only where an animal was “grown and processed” only benefits beef packers and beef importers.

Bullard says meatpackers and importers from as many as 20 foreign counties are feeding the American market with cheaper beef and passing it off to unsuspecting consumers as a domestic product with “Made in the USA” labels.

“We don’t live in a world where multinational beef packers want to help America’s cattle producers increase demand for live cattle exclusively born and raised in the United States,” Bullard said. “it’s against their financial interests to do so.”

The Billings, MT-based R-CALF is a membership-based organization for independent U.S. cattle producers. It favors a return to mandatory COOL with the emphasis being on the “origin of meat.”

In his testimony to Congress, Perdue said mandatory COOL “is not going to happen unless we want to do billion-dollar litigation damage with Mexico and Canada.,” referring to the potential for retaliatory tariffs.

The civil war over COOL is being fought in state legislatures and committee rooms on Capitol Hill.

Washington state is moving on a bill that requires grocery stores to divide “USA beef” from “imported beef,” with each designated by a “conspicuous placard.” An animal born and slaughtered in the United States would qualify as USA beef so long as it was never out of the country for more than 60 days.

That bill easily passed the Washington House and remains alive in the state’s Senate. And the concerns about the $1 billion in retaliatory tariffs are being raised, along with fear the bill could negatively impact Canada’s adoption of the USMCA trade agreement.

“It is critically important for Washington to be good partners with Canada and Mexico. Changing the title of this bill is important because the title on its face is similar to what raised WTO concerns, ” a staff report on the bill says. “Removing the placarding of imports will also help as that could be considered a trade-distorting statement. When dealing in a federal field, it is preferable to let the federal government handle things because it is confusing for processors, consumers, and regulators.”

The South Dakota Legislature is trying another approach, sending a resolution favoring mandatory COOl to President Trump. The Joint Resolution passed the state’s Senate 34-to-0 and the House 60-to 3. It bemoans the fact that COOL was left out of the USMCA. It urges Trump to fix the problem.

Sen. John Tester, D-MT, is the sponsor of a mandatory COOL resolution in the U.S. Senate. The voluntary version that Perdue supports exists in the proposed Beef Integrity Act sponsored by Sens. Mike Rounds and John Thune, both South Dakota Republicans.

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