While admitting he was “very surprised,” at the decision by the Mississippi Cattlemen’s Association’s decision to yank their support for country of origin labeling, Mark Keenum, chief of staff for Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., says the Senator will follow the group’s lead, at least for now.

“We’re listening to the producers,” said Keenum. “We’re not going to tell them they are wrong, and vote against them. When you’ve got the Cattlemen’s Association saying they don’t support country of origin labeling, we’re not going to jam it down their throats.

“If all Mississippi cattlemen were pushing the issue, Sen. Cochran would likely support it. I know few, if any, instances where Sen. Cochran has voted against his constituency.”

Some commodity groups, including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, have recently flip-flopped on the issue of country of origin labeling, which was included in the 2002 farm bill.

Reversing its previous stance, the group asked Congress to support language delaying implementation of the labeling law, according to a letter sent to Cochran’s office notifying the senator of the position change.

Other groups, such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, support country of origin labeling, but were not supportive of efforts to stall this year’s appropriations bill in order to reinstate the language needed to put the law back on the books.

Fred Stokes, a Porterville, Miss., cattle producer and president of the Organization for Competitive Markets, was among the dozens of cattlemen participating in a fly-in to Washington Jan. 19-21 to show their support for country of origin labeling.

However, he was also among those who found out that the growing contention between the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the fast-growing cattle producer organization, R-Calf USA, is resulting in some confusion in Congress.

Brian Wilson, legislative assistant to Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., says he too has received conflicting information. “When Mississippi cattlemen visit Sen. Lott’s office in Washington, D.C., they state their support for country of origin labeling, but letters from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association communicate their position differently, and take a position against COOL.

“We will continue to do what we can to help out proponents of the labeling law, but Sen. Lott will vote to pass the omnibus spending bill,” he says. “Hinging all of your bets on the omnibus bill is a tough thing to do. Sen. Lott believes we should pass the omnibus spending bill and then come back to revisit the country of origin labeling law.”

As a result of recent happenings, Stokes is making some changes. He has maintained his membership with the Mississippi Cattlemen’s Association, an affiliate of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, for 32 years, but says he is now severing that relationship over the group’s handling of the labeling issue. Stokes will maintain his membership in R-Calf.

The country of origin labeling issue was brought to the forefront again when the Senate reconvened its debate on the omnibus spending package, which includes language that delays implementation of the labeling law for two years.

“Sen. Cochran voted for cloture on the omnibus spending bill because we have worked very hard on the seven titles in this bill, and because we do run the risk of operating under a continuing resolution for the remainder of this fiscal year, if we can’t get the bill passed this week,” said Keenum.

“That would result in some programs not being funded, which would cause a hardship for Mississippi by putting important programs in jeopardy.”

Despite the fact that the vote for cloture failed its initial vote Jan. 20, the spending bill was approved by a vote of 65-28 on Jan. 22. The favorable vote essentially closed the door on the country of origin labeling provision for at least the next few years. It is unlikely to end debate on the issue, however.

Keenum says concerns about the cost of country of origin labeling may be re-examined, and could possibly be lower than earlier estimates. Again, however, few can agree on what those numbers should be.

Stokes says the costs are “negligible,” and says arguments against country of origin labeling “don’t hold water.”

There’s also the debate about whether country of origin labeling is a marketing issue or a food safety issue.

“This is, in the end, a promotion issue because it doesn’t include processed foods and meats, which is the majority of the food we consume,” says Keenum.

“It is a food safety issue, and consumers have the right to choose the origin of their food,” said Stokes. “If there are two products with one labeled as originating from the United States, and one stamped with another country’s label, which would you choose?

“This answer is very clear for many consumers, especially considering that people have died from hepatitis after eating green onions imported from Mexico.”

Keenum says he believes that labeling requirements will eventually take hold, but says its adoption will be market driven. “I think you are going to see processors and producers label their products voluntarily to capture a larger market share.”

“Consumers want to know where their food comes from, and they want to differentiate it from the other stuff,” says Stokes. “Producers are entitled to receive the benefits of producing commodities under the additional regulations and associated production costs attributed to the United States’ high quality and production standards.

“This is almost an obsession with me, but this is big stuff. The implications of COOL go way beyond labeling, and there is no moral justification for opposing country of origin labeling.”

While admitting that the labeling issue is important, Keenum says, negotiations are ongoing at the leadership level, and he’s optimistic a compromise can be reached on the issue.

“Heavy, high level discussions are going on about this issue, and I don’t see it dying anytime soon. This is going to have to be resolved one way or the other,” says Keenum.

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com