By Roger Johnson, president, National Farmers Union
Dating back to 1984, National Farmers Union (NFU) policy has supported country of origin labeling (COOL). Our producers have always known that they raise the best beef and pork in the world, and they believe consumers should be able to know where the meat at the grocery store came from. Last week, this decades-old policy fight may have come to an end.
For thirty years, NFU has been the leader on COOL. NFU led a coalition of diverse groups to advocate for and support passage of the COOL provisions in the 2002, 2008 and 2014 farm bills. We intervened on behalf of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the domestic lawsuits brought forward by the multinational meatpackers who claimed they had the constitutionally guaranteed right to deliberately deceive consumers. We had numerous fly-ins, op-eds, press releases, and meetings with the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), and members of Congress. In short, NFU did everything possible to support COOL.
Unfortunately, our efforts could not compete with the threats that materialized through the World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute process. Canada and Mexico, urged on by the multinational meat packing industry, challenged our COOL regulations, twice arguing that COOL treated imported livestock less favorably than domestic livestock. Simply labeling our meat products with their country of origin was deemed a trade barrier. Meanwhile, 62 other WTO countries have mandatory COOL on food products. Canada has its own voluntary meat labeling regime, even as it opposes the U.S. doing the same.
After the final loss at the WTO last spring and months of threats of retaliation exceeding $3 billion from our neighboring countries, the U.S. House of Representatives acted quickly to repeal COOL on beef, pork and chicken. The decision on how to solve the COOL trade dispute then moved to the Senate. NFU, based in DC, has its ear to the ground on Capitol Hill. We learned quickly that even some of our champions on COOL were facing increased pressure to fold and give up because the threats of retaliation on other agricultural products were too high.
It was clear the time for compromise had come or we faced losing everything we had worked so hard for. NFU’s board of directors weighed all of the options that had been considered over the years, and decided that the most important part of COOL was the definition for a product of the U.S. to mean that the animal was born, raised, and slaughtered in the U.S. With great reluctance, the board voted to support the Hoeven-Stabenow bill, which would have preserved the definition in law and prevented the misleading use of a product of the U.S. label. This was the last chance to protect the integrity of the law.
While NFU and our divisions aggressively lobbied the Hill, we also repeatedly met with USTR and USDA to encourage them to find a negotiated settlement that would work for Canada.
As Christmas 2015 approached, the WTO authorized Canada and Mexico to retaliate more than $1 billion against the U.S. at the same time that Congress needed to pass a funding bill to avoid shutting down the government. A backroom deal was cut without public input, and repeal of COOL for beef and pork was included in the omnibus funding bill and signed by the President on December 18.
Now we turn our attention to the next fight ahead of us, defeating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The downfall of COOL is a prime example of why the trade agenda in the U.S. has failed family farmers and consumers. As a nation, we have allowed foreign tribunals to threaten our sovereignty to decide our own domestic laws. The trade agenda threatens the very laws that NFU cares about: those that protect and benefit society, including environmental, social, economic and food safety laws. While we may have lost COOL for now, we will continue to work toward a better trade paradigm that benefits family farmers and ranchers and society as a whole.