Government-required labeling on food ought to tell consumers information they want to know in a manner that's clear, consistent and truthful.
Putting a "made in the USA" label on American agriculture products should help market those products. That benefit shouldn't be canceled out by the producers' cost of complying with labeling rules.
Country of origin labeling is a good concept. If a T-shirt is labeled with the country where it was stitched together, why not label steak with the country where the meat was produced?
If only it were so simple. Many questions have yet to be answered about the USDA rule-making process to institute mandatory COOL for meat and produce by Sept. 30, 2004.
COOL was mandated by the 2002 Farm Bill. The Montana Stockgrowers Association and many other U.S. ag groups have long supported the idea. But now that USDA is considering rules that would require paperwork to track every animal from farm to supermarket, the ranchers want to rein in the rule makers.
"It's a lot more complex than we ever envisioned," Bill Donald, a Melville rancher, told The Gazette's editorial board recently. "It's kind of 'be careful what you ask for…' "
In a recent letter to USDA, Montana Stockgrowers President John Swanz of Judith Gap suggested that cattle crossing the border into the United States should be tracked, but there need be no paper trail for cattle born, raised and slaughtered in the United States.
Montanans and Wyomingites will have opportunities to comment on COOL rules at USDA informational sessions:
- 1-4 p.m. June 4 in Cody, Wyo., at the Holiday Inn, 1701 Sheridan Ave.
- 1-4 p.m. June 6 in Billings at the Holiday Inn, 5500 Midland Road.
Want to know more about consumer product labeling? Consumers Union has lots of information on the Web at eco-label.org.
"We're supportive of COOL," said Urvashi Rangan of Consumers Union, the nonprofit product testing organization based in Yonkers, N.Y. "It provides consumers one more piece of information about where their food comes from."
In Europe, Rangan noted, requirements for tracking meat production already are much more rigorous. "Any piece of meat can be traced back to the farm," she said.
At best, COOL has substantial limitations. It covers fresh and frozen beef, veal, lamb, pork, fish, shellfish, fruits, vegetables and peanuts. These items aren't covered by COOL if they are "an ingredient in a processed food product." Poultry isn't covered at all. The law only applies to meat and other commodities sold by retail stores. It doesn't apply to food sold in restaurants or any other prepared food service.
It's not perfect, but can help shoppers who are increasingly concerned about the food supply. COOL has the potential to give consumers more information for making their food choices.
USDA must craft rules that are workable for ranchers and retailers, while being clear and helpful for consumers.