Success: Country of Origin Labeling (COOL)
COOL is finally in effect for all foods. However, the rules issued by the USDA leave some gaping loopholes open. Secretary Vilsack has asked industry to voluntarily comply with stricter labeling standards and promises to pursue closing loopholes using stricter regulation if industry does not comply.
Originally passed in the 2002 Farm Bill, for a long time only seafood country-of-origin labeling (COOL) was in effect. Before COOL, if you were concerned where your meat came from due to mad cow or you were interested in the origin of produce because of lax pesticide or food safety laws overseas, you relied on a currently “voluntary” and rarely observed labeling system. Although Congress initially mandated COOL to take effect in 2004, it was delayed for several years.
Following the initial passage of COOL in 2002, a group of businesses and organizations led by all the usual suspects set a course to derail its implementation. The top campaign contributors on this issue in the 2000-2004 election cycles include: Wal-mart, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Food Marketing Institute, Cargill, ConAgra, Tyson, American Meat Institute, National Pork Producers Council, Grocery Manufacturers of America, National Food Processors Association, Safeway, and Smithfield Foods. These organizations and more gave over $2.5 million in contributions, overwhelmingly to Republicans. In return for such generosity, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), who received over $103,000 from COOL opponents, introduced the Food Promotion Act in the House to change COOL into a voluntary program and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), who received $38,250, introduced a similar act in the Senate.
Additionally, they began pulling what strings they could at the USDA, the agency charged with implementing COOL. In fact, individuals who worked as anti-COOL lobbyists took jobs at the USDA, where they could influence the government more directly. For example, Dale Moore, who first lobbied on COOL for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and later became Chief of Staff to both Secretary Ann Veneman and Secretary Mike Johanns at the USDA. Another fox, Charles Lambert, former chief economist of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, landed a position guarding the henhouse when Veneman tapped him to supervise the Agricultural Marketing Service, the very organization responsible for writing the rules of a mandatory COOL program. Needless to say, the foxes are fat, having feasted on hens for years now.
The anti-COOL lobby wanted us to believe that consumers do not demand COOL and that COOL is too expensive to implement. However, a poll conducted in 2005 showed that 85% of those surveyed want COOL, 74% support a mandatory COOL, and 55% have “little or not much trust” in the meat, seafood, produce, and grocery industries to adhere to a voluntary program. And the Government Accountability Office reports that the “USDA used assumptions that are questionable and not well supported in developing its $1.9 billion estimate for the first year cost to industry.” In other words, the USDA exaggerated the cost of COOL in order to make it appear too expensive.
Why might COOL matter to consumers? Many Americans try to minimize their “food mileage” – the miles their food travels to reach their table. In an age of wars over scarce oil resources and impending global warming, if you can’t swap your car for a bike, it’s relieving to at least reduce your environmental footprint by buying locally produced foods. Others may choose to “buy American” out of patriotic sentiment, wishing to support American farmers. Now that seafood observes COOL, many shoppers routinely pay attention to their fishes’ origins as they wish to avoid eating seafood contaminated with mercury or other toxins. No doubt they would enjoy having the same ability to conscientiously choose meats, fruits, and vegetables from countries that aren’t known to have mad cow epidemics or lenient pesticide regulations.
More informationConsumer Poll Supports Mandatory COOL (June 2005) (news piece)
Consumers Union's COOL Tool (PDF) (report) This tool helps you understand which foods are required to have a country-of-origin label and which are not.
Deloitte Survey Finds Consumers Want Clearer Labeling, Country of Origin Information on Foods of All Types (press release) July 15, 2008.
National Farmers Union Letter to Congress on COOL (PDF) (organization) This letter was sent in July 2007 in response to attempts to gut COOL by its opponents.
National Farmers Union: COOL Facts (web site)
U.S. Proposal to Allow Chicken Imports from China Raises Health Concerns (article) May 9, 2007. Yet another reason for mandatory COOL.
USDA Agricultural Marketing Service COOL Webpage (web site)
USDA Economic Research Service COOL Webpage (web site)
OrganizationsAmerican Meat Institute Anti-COOL Website (organization)
The New Rules Project (organization)
Western Organization of Resource Councils (organization)
Recent newsFinal COOL Rule Issued by the USDA (blog entry) January 21, 2009.
Vilsack Issues COOL Rules (blog entry) Tom Vilsack issued the final COOL rule and accompanied it with a letter asking industry to voluntarily comply with stricter regulations. February 2009.
Take actionDailyKos: Call Your Rep About COOL (blog entry) Refer to this July 2007 diary for a list of House Ag Committee members in the 110th Congress and talking points in support of mandatory COOL.
National Farmers Union: COOL Action Alert (July 2007) (news piece)