WASHINGTON — The debate over country of origin labeling, commonly referred to as COOL, ignited on the Senate floor before an amendment could even be offered on the subject. An amendment by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., did eventually emerge from the fray Thursday (Nov. 6) during discussions on agricultural spending, and was approved by the Senate later that evening.
In essence, Daschle's amendment asks that the Country of Origin Labeling Law be left alone, giving USDA time to finish writing the regulations and have time to implement the law. Also sponsoring the amendment is Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D.
Daschle said it was necessary to include the amendment in the Senate's work on the appropriations bill after House attempted to delay implementation of the law, and stripped funding for the labeling law as it applies to meat and meat products in its version of the agriculture appropriations bill.
"We are now in a very delicate, deliberate rule-making stage, and what our colleagues in the House have chosen to say that stage should end, and the rulemaking should be terminated before we even see the rules," Daschle said. "I think that is terrible policy, and also premature."
Johnson added, "I am a bit confounded that questions about the country of origin labeling for meat are being raised at a time when USDA has not yet issued a final statement about what the regulations are going to be. USDA has considerable discretion based on the legislation that passed this body and is now a part of the farm bill, and so a lot of this fretting is going on about final regulations that are not yet in place."
The Senate amendment, Daschle said, would allow the rulemaking process to go forward on the Country of Origin Law, and answer the fundamental question of whether or not consumers have a right to know where their food comes from.
"When we passed the country of origin legislation on an overwhelming bipartisan basis, we said consumers ought to have the right to know where their food originates," said Daschle. "What we said in the farm bill is we ought to bring agriculture, and consumer protection and information, into the modern era. When we passed the country of origin legislation on an overwhelming bipartisan basis, we said consumers ought to have the right to know where their food originates."
Eighty-four percent of the United States' trading partners already have some type of labeling law in place, because they have recognized the importance of good consumer information, he said.
Calling it "one of the single most important consumer bills that Congress will take up this session," Daschle said he finds it ironic that consumers can determine where their bananas, or lettuce, or clothing come from, but they don't know where their meat originates.
"And when it comes to meat, we can tell you whether it is choice or whether it is prime, but we can't tell you where it's imported from," he said. "If we can decide the difference between choice and prime, we can decide the difference between Mexico and the United States. All we're talking about here is a recognition that consumers have just as much right to know where their meat comes from as they have a right to know the quality."
After Congress was told by meat packers that country of origin labeling is too expensive, Daschle said Congress asked the General Accounting Office to review the costs and look at the facts. GAO did that, he said, and reported back estimated costs of less than half of the earlier $2 billion figure given by the Office of Management and Budget.
Daschle believes the cost estimates are still too high and do not account for the increased consumer demand resulting from country of origin labels.