C.O.O.L. Rules Haunt U.S. Protectionists

Commentary, Agriculture, Robert Sopuck

An old adage advises, “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.” It applies in spades to public policy. People often ask that the government “just do something” about a specific problem that happens to be bugging them. Sometimes, it does what they want, but the remedy is worse than the disease.

The recent United States Farm bill contained “Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) requirements. COOL mandates that meat in American grocery stores carry a label that designates its country of origin. Its purpose was not health or consumer protection, but merely to create one of those “non-tariff trade barriers” so beloved by the people who think free trade makes them poor. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, small but well-organized special interests, with elected officials in tow, continue their quest to eviscerate free and open trade in the mistaken belief that if only imports were kept out all would be well.

COOL is one such non-tariff barrier. Put in place by a small segment of the U.S. beef industry and some farm state senators, COOL will require a massive paper trail to prove the country of origin of a particular meat product on store shelves. In terms of its effects on Canada, it is expected that U.S. retailers will avoid the cost of compliance by simply refusing to stock imported meat products. What this will mean for those specialty stores that proudly offer meat products from around the world is anyone’s guess.

When COOL was first discussed it was assumed that only nasty foreigners would be caught in the paper work net., but to their dismay the entire U.S. meat industry must now comply, even those who import nothing. COOL applies to “any person engaged in the business of supplying a covered commodity for retail sale.” COOL records must be kept for two years by all components of the meat industry, including producers, growers, handlers, packers, processors and importers. The onerous paper trail necessary to prove that the animal in question was born, raised, and slaughtered in the U.S. in order to have the meat qualify as American hits them all.

The provisions also cover mixed meat like hamburger and sausage. If meat from a number of countries is used in a product, the label must name all of them in descending order by weight. Up to now, meat from animals from all countries was just mixed together as purchasers and packagers bought product based on the economics of the moment. As well, western Canadian animals are shipped to the U.S. as feeders or slaughter animals and are mixed with U.S. animals. The U.S. pork industry depends upon a steady supply of weanlings from Canada. This, too, must now be documented.

The proponents of COOL in the U.S. had no idea of its ramifications. If you’ll forgive the pun, the “chickens are now coming home to roost” on this little policy gem.

Canadian farmers export more than 80% of everything they grow. The COOL laws threaten the one really bright spot in the agricultural economy, the beef industry. Combined with other regulatory assaults like the flawed federal fish habitat laws or the new animal rights legislation, it makes it very difficult for our producers to make a living.

If it continues, we may need to ask, “Will the last one to leave the Prairies please turn out the lights?”