Few issues have been more controversial and divisive in the cattle industry than country-of-origin labeling (COOL). With the 2007 farm bill debate heating up, its front-and-center position is assured.

There already have been attempts by some to link COOL in the upcoming farm bill to USDA's 30-months-of-age rule regarding imported Canadian cattle. We can expect the issue to be raised in a number of ways both pro and con.

First, we must accept that COOL has never been about COOL. Everyone agrees the law is terribly written, but COOL supporters have never wanted it corrected because they fear its defeat if reopened. Meanwhile, COOL opponents don't want the measure fixed because a more workable law might get it implemented.

I'm a big believer in the free market, and I oppose government intervention in the marketplace, at least on what is a marketing issue. I concur with the economic analysis that the absence of a voluntary COOL program -- when no structural or institutional barrier exists -- is a clear sign the consumer doesn't see enough value in it.

While I believe it's clear COOL will cost the U.S. consumer and U.S. cattleman money, and am adamantly opposed to it from a philosophical standpoint, I also understand COOL is really a symbol of a much deeper clash in our industry. As such, it's taken on a life far beyond forced labeling of our product.

COOL is a clash between those who believe in competing in the global marketplace, and those who believe we'd be better off abandoning the global marketplace for a protected domestic market. It's become a symbol of the clash between large and small, value-based marketing vs. commodity pricing, National Cattlemen's Beef Association vs. the U.S. Cattlemen's Association (successor to the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund group), and pro-government vs. pro-market orientations. It's the topic that crystallized and came to symbolize these divisions.

It was the perfect issue. There was a lot of support for COOL; it was the kind of powerful issue that could segment producers in the same way the political parties have used abortion, taxes and class warfare. COOL is a winning issue for the smaller opposition organizations in the country, and a clarification of guiding principles and values for the larger organizations. It's not only the perfect issue to divide the industry, but it's served both sides extremely well from a broader political perspective.

Republicans with their less-government approach had a strong advantage with independent-minded cattlemen, while COOL gave the Democrats a populist appeal that allowed them to gain ground back in key states where cattlemen are large enough to be important as a swing voting bloc in close elections. Thus, COOL divided somewhat along party lines at the national level, where both sides have a vested interest in keeping the issue alive rather than actually addressing it.

An outside observer might say that if the industry had compromised, COOL could have been implemented a long time ago, but neither side is served by such a resolution. COOL in any form would make free-market anti-government involvement, pro-trade, and pro-value based marketing adherents anxious. And it would have taken the steam and passion out of the opposition, as well.

In the absence of COOL, Democrats wouldn't have an issue that cancels out many of their other positions and alliances with the environmental movement, anti-beef consumer groups, and the like. And they would have lost the leverage COOL gives them to split a voting bloc that has become increasingly Republican. Meanwhile, for Republicans, it would be an abdication of key philosophical principles on their free-market position.

So what does this mean for the actual implementation of COOL? Nothing. Republicans and the large cattlemen's groups would like to see it resolved so the focus could return to issues where their positions have a distinct advantage among the majority of cattlemen, but they don't want to be seen as giving in to the opposition. And the supporters of COOL, in the absence of results on any other front, realize their interests are best served by keeping this issue alive. So we'll likely continue to see COOL as an ongoing and major political battleground year after year, with virtually no change in what actually occurs.
-- Troy Marshall