Some of the nation?s largest food industry associations have created an unlikely alliance, united toward a common goal: to prevent the federal government from enacting mandatory country-of-origin-labeling legislation, by writing their own voluntary compliance program.
COOL has been a hot-button issue for more than a year, sparked by consumers? and legislators? fears over bioterror, mad cow disease, and salmonella outbreaks and other food-borne illnesses, some with roots in foreign countries. As part of the 2002 Farm Bill, the government passed—and nearly began enacting—mandatory legislation that would have required farm-to-fork tracking of most fresh and many processed foods. Ultimately, products would bear labels telling consumers where their seafood, meat and produce were grown and processed. Critics derided the legislation as too costly and too bureaucratic. In a last-minute fiscal move in January, legislators effectively postponed the measure until 2006.
Knowing that the issue is not yet dead, 10 industry trade groups have proposed their own labeling program. In opposition to mandatory COOL legislation, the alliance said, the voluntary regulations are market-driven, recognize existing labeling programs such as Black Angus Beef, minimize record-keeping, allow flexibility and are cost-effective.
Karen Batra, a spokeswoman for the National Cattlemen?s Beef Association, said the coalition?s intent is ?absolutely? to eliminate the government?s mandatory legislation before the 2006 deadline. ?Our intention all along is a program that?s going to be beneficial to both consumers and manufacturers, without being a heavy-handed, mandated program.?
In addition to the NCBA, the collaborative group comprises commodity producers, such as the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association; marketers such as the Food Marketing Institute and the Produce Marketing Association; and advocates for retailers and processors, including the National Grocers Association and the National Food Processors Association.
A press release the group issued said the voluntary labeling approach ?informs consumers about agriculture products? country of origin and benefits U.S. producers by promoting American-grown foods.?
To that end, Batra said that any labeling program is merely a marketing initiative. ?I don?t understand why self-policing and regulation needs to be an issue. There?s no consumer safety issue here. It?s a marketing program. Safety is not ensured by a labeling program.?
If consumers have concerns about food safety, Batra said, ?Maybe we have a little more [education] we need to do, but that?s not going to happen through a country-of-origin-labeling initiative or any kind of marketing program.?
Batra characterized the effort as a race against time. ?We?re very early on in this process; we?re still hoping to get legislation introduced. There are legislative initiatives to move the deadline [for the mandatory program?s implementation] back up to 2004.? Likely sponsors for a voluntary program, she said, could include Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., or Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas, both members of the House Agriculture Committee, which has shown ?tremendous support? for the initiative, she said.
?What we do have on our side and what we?re pointing to is that a lot of these groups already have voluntary programs in place ? especially in the produce section,? Batra added, noting the regional branding of Florida oranges, Idaho potatoes and the like. ?It doesn?t mean they need to jump through any new hoops.
?We are hoping to keep this program as simple as possible,? Batra said.
The consortium?s announcement came May 20, the same day The Washington Post reported that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had allowed imports of 33 million pounds of processed Canadian beef between September 2003 and March 2004—despite the agency?s self-imposed ban on Canadian beef products in the wake of a case of mad cow disease discovered in Canada in August 2003.
?That was a permitting mistake, basically a paperwork mistake,? Batra said. ?The beef that was coming in was perfectly safe. If it were not ground, it would meet the existing permitting requirements—it was ground and there was no permit for it. There was never any threat to the public or to the food safety.?
On April 26, a federal judge in Montana ordered the imports stopped. ?USDA has been authorizing imports of virtually all edible bovine meat products, apparently through issuing individual permits, at a time when it was assuring the public that such authorization would take place through the rulemaking process,? wrote U.S. District Judge Richard F. Cebull.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 7/p. 12