Three months ago in Phoenix, former Rep. Charlie Stenholm (D-TX) reported that he'd sat down with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack for 1½ hours and came away with the impression that “he has the makings of a good hand. He'll be the first to tell you he doesn't know a heck of a lot about all the issues, but he's educatable.”

If Vilsack's first moves are any indication, Barack Obama had better earmark lots of education dollars for USDA.

After a tortuous six-year path, mandatory country of origin labeling (MCOOL) finally took effect March 16. One of the measure's omnipresent problems has been the uncertainty of its provisions, which managed to keep target firms constantly anxious about the means and costs of compliance.

While many — from both sides — were dissatisfied with the final version to some degree, at least the issue seemed somewhat settled as the mid-March implementation date drew near. In fact, House Ag Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) had the wisdom to implore the administration to allow the measure to function as written for six months to see how things went.

So it was to the consternation of many that Vilsack in late February penned a letter to the packing industry. He wrote that MCOOL would go into effect as scheduled, but he expected the industry to voluntarily implement stricter guidelines than the law stipulated.

The letter asked processors to:

  • Include information about what production step occurred in each country when multiple countries appear on the label.

  • Label processed foods, including cured, smoked, broiled, grilled and steamed products, which hadn't previously been part of the discussion.

  • Shorten the time allowance that ground-beef processors can hold inventories for labeling purposes from 60 to 10 days.

Vilsack ended the letter with the threat that if processors didn't kowtow to his wishes, he would “carefully consider whether modifications to the rule will be necessary.” It had all the swagger of a Godfather-style “offer you can't refuse” flavored with a Charlie Chan-style “offer you can't understand.”

As Steve Kay reported in the Feb. 23 Cattle Buyers Weekly, observers say the requests illuminate Vilsack's cluelessness about “the complexity of MCOOL and the industry and trade ramifications of such requests.” And that shouldn't be surprising in that those same observers report Vilsack “does not have a single person on his staff who has a real understanding of the agricultural community, who the major players are or how policy is made.”

The end result is that all this wrangling over MCOOL could continue for months if not years, with everyone from producers to consumers paying the price.