So far, the estimated cost for the beef industry to comply with country-of-origin labeling (COOL) ranges between less than a few cents/head to more than $8 billion total. It depends on who's running the abacus, which beads they're sliding and plenty of supposition about what the mandatory law will actually require.

On one side of the fence is a growing legion of producers and producer organizations pressing Congress to review, repeal, rescind, rewrite and rewind the law. The reasons abound but, most often, they revolve around at least one of these three notions:

  • The total cost to the industry — whatever that cost winds up being — is too high relative to what it provides consumers.

  • As written, the law makes for an unnecessary, expensive, uncoordinated system that likely will have to be married to another system once some form of standardized national cattle identification becomes mandatory, as many suspect.

  • Or, without a system for compliance in the place first, the law demanding compliance is a classic case of putting the chariot ahead of Mr. Ed.

    In fact, some of the folks on this side of the fence have said they will exit the business before being forced to endure what they envision to be an untenable, no-win, nightmarish quagmire of having to maintain records on thousands of head of cattle in such a way they can prove from where the cattle come.

    On the other side of the fence are folks who already keep individual records on their home-raised cattle, as well as those they buy. So, the only change some of these operators envision is making sure calf suppliers provide them with country-of-origin verification. Bottom line, whether they agree or disagree with the law, they believe they can comply without spending much, if any more, money.

    As in any debate, there are outliers on both sides, ranging from folks who still don't know what's afoot to those whose assumptions are too irrational to be considered seriously.

    One thing does seem sure. There will be a cost to the beef supply chain beyond what individual producers must pay to maintain records on their own cattle, if they don't already have a sturdy enough system in place.

  • It will come in the form of weaving threads of standardization into the tags, records and recordkeeping systems that compliance with the COOL law demands of cow-calf, stocker and cattle feeding organizations.

  • It will come in the form of added manpower to keep track of the data and even more if and when someone, somewhere, is audited.

  • And, it will come in the form of time spent segregating cattle differently, more often, etc.

What's more, without a mechanism to retrieve the added costs associated with providing the information, the supply chain that exists prior to the retailer is being asked to absorb all of that cost. Even if COOL proves to be the catalyst that accelerates individual animal management and its supposed attendant efficiencies, such an expectation seems unfair at best.

Whether or not COOL is beyond revision and rescission, perhaps it's time the parts of the supply chain being mandated to provide COOL information and verification focus on how to get paid for these efforts from those mandating them. The law demands the information be provided; it says nothing about providing it for free.

The point is that there is value in cattle beyond the traditional pounds, yield and grade. No one ever said producers had to give that value away, so why not work to market it.