The political wrangling for the new farm bill is starting to hit high gear. One hint is the debate over country-of-origin labeling (COOL) in which both sides are pulling out the heavy artillery.

The Food Marketing Institute (FMI), in characterizing the food industry's experience with mandatory COOL for seafood, said this week that the measure hadn't increased U.S. seafood sales but had cost the supermarket industry 10 times more than what USDA had estimated. Meanwhile, Ranchers - Cattlemen Action Legal Fund (R-CALF), the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) and consumer activist groups leveraged the latest news from Canada on BSE incidence to press for full implementation of COOL by next fall.

Practically every producer in the country agrees with COOL in theory; they like the idea of designating the country of origin at the supermarket level. But they become divided on philosophical lines when the discussion becomes voluntary vs. mandatory.

I've always believed the market functions best without government intervention. If consumers wanted it, and were willing to pay for it, food providers would already be doing it. Others believe that, regardless of the fact that consumers won't pay for it and the implementation cost is high, it still should be done. There's no question COOL will cost the industry from a profit standpoint, but a great number of producers are willing to accept the loss as a matter of principle.

It's too confusing to even try to figure out the logic of how those who support mandatory COOL are against mandatory ID. After all, ID is a prerequisite to COOL. They tout COOL as a food-safety issue, while rejecting the system that would actually protect herd health and consumer safety -- individual animal ID.

ID and COOL are similar in that the economic incentives vs. the cost to implement them simply aren't there. As a result, neither will happen without government intervention, so the economic arguments are pointless.

Rather, the debate on COOL and ID should be focused on how much disconnect there really is between the programs' goals and their ability to deliver on them. The current COOL law is a terrible law; it exempts our major competitors and doesn't apply to more than 50% of the beef market, besides violating trade laws. Implementation of COOL as currently written would be a major fiasco.

But that doesn't have to be the case. If the majority of producers want a COOL program, then let's work on getting a workable program, instead of forcing one that's destined to fail.

Relative to national ID, a voluntary program may be the stated position of the various cattlemen groups, but it's obvious that "voluntary with 100% participation" is simply another way to say "mandatory". Voluntary national ID can't meet the stated goals of the program.

It's time to lay the cards on the table, make the case for why it's in the best interest of the industry to have a traceback system, and gain consensus for a mandatory program. Either that, or accept that the industry will be unprepared in the event of a foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) outbreak.

Where national ID and COOL are concerned, there's no mistaking who's at fault for these programs' not being implemented. It's the proponents, not the opponents.

Cattlemen are supportive of the concept of COOL; they understand they have to protect their herds and the consumer from the threats we face with animal disease, etc. They're looking for viable ways to achieve those goals, and voluntary ID and the current COOL law simply fall well short of the target.
-- Troy Marshall