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COOL Controversy Not Going Away This Farm Bill

Country-of-origin labeling again looks to be controversial topic in this year's final farm bill writing.

Leading up to the much-anticipated first farm bill conference meeting, attention has been predominantly focused on the different policy approaches to nutrition funding and the commodity title. But surprisingly country-of-origin labeling could be gaining steam to once again create an interesting twist within the farm bill process.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, was the chairman during the 2002 and 2008 farm bills that brought about COOL, and said he hoped the committee does not interfere with USDA on COOL. Another veteran to the farm bill process Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said he hoped the bill would not change COOL.

But on the other side of debate Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, called COOL a "failed experiment" and Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., said it has caused "significant damage" to the industry. Since the WTO could allow major trading partners Canada and Mexico to retaliate against the U.S., Scott said a "resolution is a necessity."

Ahead of the Oct. 30 meeting of farm bill conferees, supporters and dissenters of COOL shared their views to Congress.

The National Farmers Union, U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, American Sheep Industry Association and Consumer Federation of America sent a letter to conferees stressing continued strong support for COOL and opposition to any legislative changes to the law. 

“The agribusiness and packer-producer groups are merely trying to scare members of Congress into changing the law to benefit their bottom lines,” said the letter. “We strongly oppose such action. COOL is a top priority for our organizations. Any effort to change it in the farm bill would affect our groups’ support of that legislation.”

But on the other side of the spectrum, 70 groups representing commodity, meat and food industries wrote to conferees and called for a change to the rule to avoid retaliatory actions and make the rule WTO-compliant.

The groups maintain that the WTO has already deemed the previous meat labeling law non-compliant with WTO guidelines, finding that it discriminated against Canadian and Mexican products and fear it will do it again in the next decision. Canada's proposed retaliatory list "targets a broad spectrum of commodities that will affect every state in the country, potentially delivering a paralyzing blow to the farm and food economies and rural households," the groups write.

Although both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees discussed COOL during committee debate, there is only language in the House bill to study the issue. Washington insiders said the talk by members questions whether those opposed have their eyes on doing something more than authorizing a study.

COOL was born in the 2002 farm bill and then later had to be changed in the 2008 farm bill in an effort to accommodate concerns of those in the meat industry. Chandler Goule was an instrumental Congressional staffer under then House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., during the 2008 Farm Bill writing process that required a compromise on COOL first written into the 2002 Farm Bill.

Now Goule serves as the vice president of government relations at NFU and again finds himself trying to defend COOL.  

"The members who spoke in opposition to COOL bluntly said, as NFU, USCA, ASI, and CFA have always feared, their intentions were cloaked with 'study language' when what they really are going to try and do is repeal the COOL language based on misleading information," said Goule. "They continue to try and scare Congress into unprecedented and unwarranted legislative changes because they see the writing on the wall that the chances of them winning at the WTO and in D.C. Federal Court are slim."

Kristina Butts, National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. executive director of government affairs, said NCBA was pleased to hear so many comments in favor of finding a solution to COOL. She recognized that there will be big decisions that have to be made on the commodity, nutrition and dairy policies and she's "not sure if COOL is one of those big decisions or not." However, Congressional members' "willingness to find a fix" and wanting to keep the conversation going remains important, she added.

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