Canada has been fighting the U.S. country-of-origin labelling rule since it was announced five years ago.
In the seemingly tortuous way that U.S. legislation progresses, COOL was implemented in March 2009 with an “education period” that will end in November. After that, penalties will be assessed against U.S. packers and retailers for non-compliance.
A U.S. district court judge’s decision not to grant an injunction that would at least temporarily halt full implementation is the latest battle lost. The judge ruled that a coalition of meat and livestock groups, including several from Canada, failed to prove COOL would cause irreparable harm to the industry.
But the war continues, with an appeal of the injunction ruling, a soon-to-be established panel at the World Trade Organization and continued efforts by American livestock production and packing interests to alter COOL legislation at the government level.
COOL has done severe damage to Canadian livestock industries, and according to U.S. livestock and meat interests, it hasn’t done any favours there either.
Yet the U.S. government continues to push it forward, on the basis that American consumers want to know where animals were born, raised and slaughtered. Except they don’t.
Given the controversy associated with COOL from its inception, numerous studies on its effectiveness have been undertaken. They show the legislation hasn’t had its intended result.
One from the University of Kansas found that COOL has had no effect on consumer demand and most consumers aren’t aware of the labelling legislation and don’t look for meat origin information.
“Given the costs of compliance introduced by (mandatory) COOL and no evidence of increased demand for covered products, results suggest an aggregate economic loss for the U.S. meat and livestock supply chain spanning from producers to consumers,” researcher Glynn Tonsor concluded.
It’s surprising, given those findings and the predictions of livestock production and processing interests, that the judge last week did not accept the assertion of irreparable harm to the industry.
The damage already done to the Canadian industry was not her concern, but damage to American interests seems a virtual certainty. A major Texas plant closed in January, and other processors are running below capacity because of cattle shortages and a reluctance to implement labelling in imported cattle. Smaller U.S. packing plants may also close when new labelling expenses take their toll.
There are a couple of truths here that need widespread attention.
One is that the livestock industry has become integrated and North American in scope, with similar production methods, processing techniques and safety regulations.
The other is that consumers should have access to information about their food and its origins if they want it. A single mandatory label for all meat processed in the United States could accomplish that. So could voluntary labelling, which would allow businesses to differentiate themselves if they chose.
However, an onerous and potentially confusing system of labels, does not serve consumers or the industry well.
Perhaps the whole scenario is as the U.S. Farm Foundation states: “The quagmire of COOL rules have significantly blurred the distinction between consumer interest and protectionism.”
In fact, protectionism, in the form of discrimination against imported livestock, was the basis for Canada’s victory at the WTO level when it objected to COOL. The same objection applies to the revised version, which will be considered at the WTO level in coming months.
The war against COOL continues, as it should, because it’s no longer about American consumer choice. Maybe it never was. It’s about protectionism.
Bruce Dyck, Terry Fries, Barb Glen, D’Arce McMillan and Joanne Paulson collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.