As the Farm Bill conference committee works to reach a compromise, there are a few issues that have yet to be resolved, and COOL (Country-Of-Origin Labeling) is among them.
New COOL labeling rules went into effect on November 23rd, so now the labels must list the production steps born, raised, and slaughtered. USDA and the U.S. Trade Representative’s office wrote the new rules to be WTO compliant.
In the House version of the Farm Bill, an amendment was included to require a study of COOL’s WTO compliance. NFU Governmental Relations staff saw this as a “Trojan horse” to try to repeal COOL in conference, which turned out to be the case. Now, the meat packers, Canada, and others are trying to fully repeal the COOL law, or perhaps seriously dilute it to the point where it is meaningless. The claim is that Canada is going to retaliate by putting tariffs on everything from communion wafers to wooden furniture, (see NFU’s blog: http://www.nfu.org/blog/?p=1188 ), along with a number of agricultural products. These claims ignore the fact that Canada can’t do anything of the sort unless the WTO says U.S. COOL rules aren’t compliant, and then grant Canada permission to take action – which is unlikely and far off, in any case.
Instead of conducting a study on COOL, opponents are trying to subvert the process and damage or remove COOL – which has been law since 2002, in effect since 2008, and recently updated two weeks ago in the conference committee. The best case scenario is for there not to be anything on COOL in this Farm Bill. National Farmers Union wants it left alone. If, in the unlikely event that, sometime next year the WTO tells the U.S. we need to change the way COOL works, we can worry about it then. Now is not the time to concede.
Some good news recently came to light about the two ongoing legal proceedings on COOL. The World Trade Organization will not rule on the new COOL rules before the District of Columbia Circuit Court preliminary injunction appeal is heard, which is scheduled for Jan 9. That’s a positive development because if the WTO raises any question about the COOL rules, the appellants (packers, processors, and foreign interests) would likely use that in the court case to muddy the waters against us. These legal issues are both extremely important and expensive – hence the recent fundraising for the COOL Defense Fund. Please consider supporting this fund if you can.
In a December 1, 2013 Salina Journal article on COOL, Saline County Farmers Union president Tom Holt said he is convinced anyone buying meat should know its origin. “It should be one of the consumer’s rights, just like freedom of speech,” said the farmer who runs a cow-calf operation in southeastern Saline County, near Gypsum.
Holt recently penned a letter to the editor about COOL, which garnered the attention of a Salina Journal reporter. In the letter, Holt says, “Let’s stop and think about it. If mandatory country-of-origin labeling is good for us, why are these huge conglomeration packers against it? Do you think it is fair to the consumer not to know where this food came from, or for our homeland producers? Country of origin is on your shirt, why shouldn’t it be on the food you eat? How much do you think this labeling cost? I don’t buy their claims of an excruciating cost of country-of-origin labeling. If it is a 100 percent U.S. product, the label would say “Product of USA.” If it is a product of Canada the label should say “Product of Canada.” If it were a blend of Canadian and U.S. meat, it might say “Product of Canada and the USA.” With a little extra management, it wouldn’t be that difficult to revise their labeling.”
Holt also noted that Country-of-Origin Labeling was among the “major initiatives” in the American Ag Movement that he supported in 1978 and 1979. “You might say I’ve got a burr in my saddle over this deal,” he said. “We finally get it, and people are doing everything they can to do away with it.”
Final Farm Bill negotiations were hashed out during the first week of December, leaving Congress only a few days to pass a bill before they recessed for the holidays. The bill itself still needed scoring from the Congressional Budget Office to determine its fate. Both sides made important concessions in the course of the hour-long closed-door meeting on December 4th between the four top principals from the House and Senate Agriculture committees.
The framework for the commodity title appeared to be largely in place if the compromise holds regarding base vs. planted acres. The House moved off its position that all commodity subsidies be a function of a farmer’s planted acres. Title I has been holding up the Farm Bill process more than any other title, as of late.
In the case of the nutrition title, the Senate moved off what had been a rigid position of rejecting any savings beyond the $4 billion in its bill, though still far short of the $40 billion cut over 10 years approved by the House in September. There were also discussions of a limited number of pilot programs to test new approaches to train unemployed food stamp recipients and move them into the workforce.
Conservation compliance is still an open issue, and discussions on it will likely heat up after a Title I decision is made, but NFU staff is fairly confident of its inclusion in the final bill. Energy Title discussions have not been very promising up to this point and it looks like there may be tighter restrictions on eligibility for farm program payments. In regards to GIPSA, there is still a great amount of uncertainty because no one in D.C. has been held to a vote on it for five years.
USDA Communications Director Matt Paul made the following statement on December 5, “Negotiations on Capitol Hill about the Farm Bill should continue until House and Senate leaders reach agreement on a comprehensive bill. Numerous members of both sides have indicated progress, and the country deserves continued work on this critical legislation.”
The U.S. House of Representatives will recess on Dec. 13, presenting another looming deadline for farm bill completion this year. National Farmers Union has continued to send a clear message to members of the Farm Bill Conference Committee: we need a farm bill now.
“The 113th Congress is making history for the wrong reasons,” said NFU President Roger Johnson. “Their lack of action on so many pieces of legislation has made them one of the least productive in history. There is still time, however, to take action and complete the farm bill under the steady leadership of the Senate and House agriculture committees.”
NFU sent a letter to the members of the conference committee earlier this year outlining its grassroots-driven policy priorities, including:
- Maintaining permanent farm bill law;
- Establishing fixed reference prices for commodity programs;
- Opposing any legislative changes to Country-of-Origin Labeling;
- Enacting an inventory management tool as part of the dairy safety net;
- Providing $900 million in mandatory funding for renewable energy funding; and
- Including adequate funding levels for the Farmers Market and Local Foods Promotion Program.
“There has been talk of passing extensions for portions of the bill, including dairy programs,” said Johnson. “This approach is wasting precious time and not providing certainty or reform. Instead of picking and choosing issues or putting off a real solution, the best approach for all Americans is to finish a comprehensive bill so that the president can sign it into law this year. We urge the members of the conference to come to a principled agreement and have a draft available for consideration as soon as possible.”