Keep Your COOL, Texas

A few corporate giants, and the groups that represent them, would have us believe the country-of-origin labeling law (COOL) that was included in the 2002 farm bill is actually a farm-of-origin labeling law (FOOL). However, that claim lives up to its acronym.

The COOL provision requires grocery stores to label fresh meats, fish, fruits, vegetables and peanuts with the country in which it was grown and processed. Beginning in September 2004, this new law will give American consumers the ability to make informed choices about their food and will give farmers and ranchers the opportunity to stand behind the commodities they produce.

As an independent Texas agriculture producer, I am offended by the scare tactics that large agribusinesses are using to deter farmers and ranchers form supporting this beneficial law. Unfortunately, their claims are being backed up by recent USDA cost estimates that assume each of the 2 million farmers, ranchers and fishermen in the country will need to implement a record-keeping system. That's just not COOL.

The COOL law states that the secretary of agriculture "shall not use mandatory identification system to verify the country of origin of a covered commodity." This puts the burden of proof on the importer, not the individual farmer or rancher.

It doesn't make sense to impose unnecessary paperwork on Texas's farmers and ranchers when records are already kept on animals and produce imported into this country. COOL law encourages use of certification programs that are already being used by federal agencies.

Many producers have received threats of third-party verification from meatpackers. Don't be FOOLed. There is nothing in the country-of-origin labeling law that requires third-party verification or burdensome audit trails. While packers may impose their own interpretations of COOL, the law is directed at retailers, not packers. There has been some question about whether these threats violate the Packers and Stockyards Act.

I believe that country of origin labeling, long supported by Farmers Union and many other farm, ranch and consumer groups, is one of the most important efforts to ensure the survivability and enhance economic opportunities for the U.S. independent livestock and produce farmers. In the global economy, our producers play on an unleveled playing field, disadvantaged by the value of our dollar and forced to compete with countries whose farmers, ranchers, and processors produce in a system with much lower labor, environmental and sanitation standards.

As an American producer, I am very proud of the "Cadillac" quality products U.S. farmers provide. Yet, at the current marketplace, this "Cadillac" product is not differentiated from the lower valued, imported model with its uncertain assurance of quality and safety. Surveys prove that consumers, if given a choice, will demand our U.S. premium product and support the U.S. farmer and the U.S. worker who provide them with that quality product.

I am excited about the potential benefits of a successfully implemented COOL law. I believe that stronger farmer-consumer relationships will be forged. Consumers will support our U.S. farm families and demand and choose our quality products. Family farm operations will become more profitable and the consumer will be assured safe, wholesome food. It's a win-win situation.

The COOL law was written to protect producers, not additionally burden them. For this reason, Texas Farmers Union has advocated country-of-origin labeling for years and will continue to stand behind the law and make sure it is implemented in a farmer- and rancher-friendly way.

Texas Farmers Union, P.O. Box 738, Sweetwater, Tx 79556