October 20, 2009

Opinion Editorial

By Danni Beer, U.S. Cattlemen’s Association COOL Committee Chairman and Region 10 Director


The October 7 statement by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) regarding Canada’s challenge of the U.S. Country of Origin Labeling Law (COOL) under the World Trade Organization (WTO) was disappointing to many cattle producers across the country including myself. As the primary contractor for, and receiver of, Beef Checkoff funds, NCBA needs to learn to listen to our consumers and respect the hundreds of thousands of cattle producers who pay into the mandatory Beef Checkoff. With public statements clearly aimed at undermining U.S. ranchers’ defense of COOL, it is little wonder that producers overwhelmingly favor changes in the Beef Checkoff structure.

I am reminded of the 1998 and 1999 U.S. trade investigation cases against Canada for dumping and subsidies in the cattle industry. During the International Trade Committee hearings, Canada’s attorney used NCBA statements against U.S. ranchers. Today we are hearing similar statements from this same U.S. based organization about Canada’s COOL challenge, trying to show a lack of unity and support by U.S. cattle producers for COOL. You can bet that at the WTO hearings on the COOL challenge, Canada, and what is anticipated to be nearly every other importing beef country into the U.S., will use statements like the one issued last week.

NCBA consistently and regularly talks about the need for cattle industry unity. However, these types of actions only aggravate and underscore the fragmentation we have seen in our industry.

NCBA’s recent statement that, “The U.S. imports and adds value to Mexican and Canadian livestock through our feedlots, processing and infrastructure; we export this value-added finished product back to Mexican and Canadian consumers; that any disruption to either of these markets will have a significant economic impact on our industry; and unfortunately, it’s becoming clear that COOL has damaged these critically important trading relationships and is not putting any additional money into the pockets of U.S. cattlemen” is, intentionally or unintentionally, misleading and completely misses the reasoning and basis for COOL.

It is well understood in the marketing world that the more choices consumers have, the more they consume. It is also well understood that the more focused your promotion is on a product, the more consumer demand can be expected. At a time when beef demand has dropped and cattle prices are in the red, we need programs and actions such as mandatory COOL that improve our market arenas. Without COOL, U.S. ranchers are forced to participate in an international commodity market where, as Don Evans, former Secretary of Commerce said, “the global market goes to the lowest-cost producer.”

Lest we forget, in January of this year NCBA membership approved a resolution supporting the move to devote a portion of the Beef Checkoff funds towards the exclusive promotion of U.S. beef, yet, the organization contradicts that policy by taking a position that will undermine U.S. ranchers’ right to differentiate their product for our consumers.

It is insulting to U.S. ranchers’ intelligence to continue suggesting that a market-driven, voluntary program will work as well as a mandatory program. For such market signals to work properly there must be complete transparency and education. Unfortunately, today’s consumers can be misled into thinking that, if a beef product has a U.S. grade stamp on it such as “U.S. Choice” or an inspection stamp on it such as “USDA Inspected”, it means the product is U.S. Beef.

McDonald’s food service understood this very well when they advertised heavily, following the finding of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in Canada, that the chain served only “USDA Inspected” beef. I believe we all understand that McDonald’s created this marketing campaign to address its millions of consumers’ concerns regarding the safety of Canadian beef since McDonald’s products include not only imported beef, but also Canadian beef.

Previous statements by NCBA suggest that COOL is not compliant with international obligations. This simply is not the case and as the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) explained earlier in comments filed with the U.S. Trade Representative, no country is prohibited from labeling their products and nothing in the COOL regulations discriminates against Mexico or Canada. In fact, as noted in USCA’s comments, these provisions accord imported products the exact same treatment accorded to domestic products, they are transparent and reasonable, and they serve an important and legitimate objective of increasing the amount of information available to consumers who purchase meat products from retailers.

COOL only imposes additional labeling requirements on U.S. meat products and imported cattle. Imported meat products may retain the origin markings already required by Customs and be in full compliance with COOL. Imported Mexican and Canadian cattle are already required to either carry marks of origin and arrive in the U.S. with seals noting the country of origin on trucks that are delivering them.

I’m disappointed and believe this organization knew exactly the potential consequences when it issued its public statement on the WTO COOL challenge and should have known the damage it could potentially inflict on U.S. ranchers’ defense of the law. It is my hope that cattle producers across the country will let their organization know how they feel and what they expect.

There have been numerous attacks on our industry lately including several books and media articles as well as the “Meatless Monday” campaigns and legislation banning industry-wide practices. All of these issues require our attention and resources. The industry should not find itself side-tracked by having to defend ourselves from statements made by beef industry organizations.

For those of you who wish to see U.S. ranchers represented during the WTO challenges, I encourage you to send a donation to the U.S. COOL Defense Fund, c/o Leo McDonnell, 1640 Hwy. 10, Columbus, MT 59019.

Established in March 2007, USCA is committed to concentrating its efforts in Washington, DC to enhance and expand the cattle industry’s voice on Capitol Hill. USCA has a full-time presence in Washington, giving cattle producers across the country a strong influence on policy development. For more information go to www.uscattlemen.org.