Correspondence between Sens. Tim Johnson and Tom Daschle, Democrats from South Dakota, and the Bush Administration demonstrates the disagreements surrounding the labeling law scheduled to take effect in September 2004.

The two senators say they are have several concerns with the way the Administration has managed the rulemaking process for country of origin labeling, and are both “troubled and disappointed” that groups supportive of the labeling law were not afforded the access to the Administration provided to those against the law.

“While we understand the Administration is opposed to COOL, it remains the law and needs to be implemented in a fair and open manner,” the two senators say.

“Some groups supportive of COOL have expressed concerns that the Office of Management and Budget reviewed the 200-page rule in a hurried manner,” the letter states. “Some have even suggested the Administration was pressured by COOL opponents to hasten the release of an inflated cost estimate for COOL in order to impact a vote on a related Senate amendment.”

“Our concern that the Administration may not intend to implement the COOL law in a balanced fashion was elevated by an Oct. 27 letter from OMB to USDA,” said the senators. “The letter regurgitates claims about the cost and impact of COOL on affected parties and the U.S. economy, while neglecting to describe the benefits of such a program.”

The Office of Management and Budget’s letter to USDA addressed its concerns about the program’s cost to consumers, which that agency says are “substantially in excess of any benefits.”

Sens. Johnson and Daschle say the letter from OMB to USDA is “a transparent signal that the administration may be working to engineer a repeal of the law an entire year before it is set to be implemented and before the comment period for the proposed rule has concluded.”

Fred Stokes, a Mississippi cattle producer and president of the Organization for Competitive Markets, believes USDA has made progress in improving the proposed mandatory rule since its release of voluntary COOL guidelines last November.

“The rule-making process is working in that some of our concerns have been addressed, and that process must be allowed to continue,” Stokes says. “USDA also recognized that their initial record-keeping cost estimate was inflated. We now have a clear idea of the rules and can eliminate meat packer arguments speculating on what the rules could say.”

“We feel that some of the discrepancies in the first draft have been resolved. However, USDA fails to recognize the obvious benefits of COOL which have been validated by every credible study to examine the issue,” Stokes says.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association is not quite so optimistic. In a recent newsletter to its members, the commodity group says, “USDA estimates that implementation costs of the proposed mandatory rule could be as high as $3.9 billion in the first year alone.

“We maintain that a market driven, producer-led country of origin labeling program will allow producers to participate at their choosing without incurring unnecessary costs. Cattlemen are hoping Congress will find a way to rework the law so it helps, not hinders – the profitability of cow-calf producers.”

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com