Voluntary food labeling is not COOL

By Dave Frederickson, National Farmers Union President

May 19, 2004: A few lawmakers have devised yet another plan to kill a law passed in 2002 that would require grocery stores to label certain foods with their country of origin.

U.S. Reps. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Charles Stenholm, D-Texas, plan to offer legislation this week to repeal the mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL) provision and, instead, maintain a voluntary system. But, there are several reasons voluntary food labeling is just not COOL.

For starters, voluntary country-of-origin labeling has been available since 1998, yet packers, processors and retailers have refused to participate. There is no reason to believe companies that profit from importing less expensive and often lower-quality food products would voluntarily label these products because they fear consumers would prefer to buy U.S.-origin food.

These fears are accurate as, in a recent national survey, 85 percent of U.S. consumers said they were more inclined to buy food produced in the United States. Unfortunately, without mandatory labeling, consumers have no way to distinguish U.S. quality products from the 11 percent of food products that are imported and consumed in the U.S.

Secondly, it is not the right time to make changes in voluntary provisions that are due to expire this fall when the mandatory provisions have yet to be implemented. The Goodlatte-Stenholm legislation would also reopen the farm bill, making it vulnerable to a variety of controversial amendments.

Most importantly, it’s not wise to eliminate a law that would help domestic producers promote the consumption of U.S.-grown products and better compete with the tremendous growth of imported food products. It is unfair to disallow American producers a marketing and promotion tool like COOL, yet continue to champion trade deals like the Australian Free Trade Agreement that will further open our markets with little expected return for U.S. producers. Domestic agriculture producers need a level, competitive playing field or we will continue the trend toward offshoring America’s agriculture production.

Instead of scrapping the beneficial mandatory COOL law, why not take action to improve it? Any concerns surrounding mandatory COOL can be resolved by modifying current law to ensure the U.S. Department of Agriculture implements the program in a producer- and retailer-friendly manner. If USDA uses common sense in writing the implementation rules, COOL could be up and running by the original September 2004 deadline.

Viable legislation has been introduced to improve upon the mandatory COOL law. If passed, the Country-of-Origin Labeling Amendment Act of 2003 (H.R. 3083), sponsored by Reps. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and Dennis Rehberg, R-Mont., and the Country-of-Origin Labeling Enhancement Act of 2004 (H.R. 3993), sponsored by Reps. Mary Bono, R-Calif., and Darlene Hooley, D-Ore., would ensure the mandatory COOL law is enacted in an efficient and cost-effective manner. These are constructive solutions to address the concerns surrounding COOL, quite a contrast to the negative approach of killing the law before it is properly implemented.

National Farmers Union (www.nfu.org) works to protect and enhance the economic interests and quality of life for rural citizens through legislative representation, educational opportunities and support for farmer-owned cooperative ventures. Contact NFU at nfunews@nfu.org.