By Mike Stranz, NFU Government Relations Representative

Earlier this month, the World Trade Organization (WTO) gave the United States a May 23, 2013, deadline to bring its Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) rules into compliance with a WTO ruling. That gives NFU members plenty of time to make their voices heard that we want to keep COOL.

COOL was passed as a part of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 and amended in the 2008 farm bill. It requires retailers to label certain foods with the country (or countries) in which the animal or plant was grown, raised, or slaughtered and processed. COOL went into effect in 2008 and regulations were put forward in 2009

As soon as COOL was implemented, Canada and Mexico began to challenge the law, claiming that the rules hurt their meat industries because of separate handling requirements and consumer preference for domestic products.

The Canadians and Mexicans told the WTO that COOL in the U.S. hurt  the meat industry on both sides of the border by increasing costs, lowering processing efficiency and otherwise distorting trade across the Canada-U.S. border.

NFU disagrees. COOL isn’t anywhere near as costly as some claimed, and losses that total in the billions of dollars have not occurred.

However, in response to the allegations by our neighbors, the WTO issued a ruling in June 2012 that agreed in part with the complaint. WTO determined the way by which the law was implemented discriminated against imported meat products, but did not find fault with the law itself. This was relatively good news for COOL supporters. Although changes to the technical workings of COOL may need to be made, alterations to the underlying COOL legislation will not be necessary.

Despite all the legal issues, the most important fact remains: consumers want and have the right to know where their meat comes from.  Surveys have shown that 85-95 percent of American consumers want to better understand the origins of their food. This trend isn’t unique to the U.S., either. Last week, the Australian government extended Country-of-Origin Labeling to unpackaged beef, sheep and chicken.

As more countries require COOL for a broader selection of food, U.S. trade officials and the WTO need to make sure that our supermarkets don’t end up on the wrong side of history. Consumers want to know more about their food, and after all, the customer’s always right.

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