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Published May 26, 2015, 09:10 AM

COOL comes under pressure

Summer meals for many begin on the grill. What if I told you the sanctity of throwing a burger or steak on the grill is under attack? And this attack is specifically directed at your rights as a consumer?

By: Doug Sombke,

Summer meals for many begin on the grill. What if I told you the sanctity of throwing a burger or steak on the grill is under attack? And this attack is specifically directed at your rights as a consumer?

Currently, members of Congress are attempting to undermine an integral piece of American legislation, country-of- origin labeling (COOL).

This legislation requires food sellers to label their products based on where the product was born, raised and processed. The attempts by members of Congress are made in conjunction with allegations from Canada and Mexico in a current case at the World Trade Organization.

These opponents are using unwarranted claims and, in some cases, scare tactics to erode consumer rights and food safety in the U.S.

Rep. K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, is using his position as a pulpit to spread unwarranted claims and attack consumer rights. Conaway argued that COOL is not about food safety, but about consumer information. Yet, he ignores that consumers can use the information gained from COOL to protect themselves from beef imported from countries dealing with outbreaks of animal diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy. These kinds of half-truth attacks are both an oversimplification and misrepresentation of COOL.

Conaway claims COOL is costly for producers, retailers and consumers — citing an Agricultural Marketing Service report outlining first-year incremental costs.

What Conaway neglects is that COOL is an issue of consumer rights, as well as a food safety concern.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration operates on a $4.3 billion budget addressing those concerns. If cost suddenly trumps safety, we might as well save the American taxpayers $4.3 billion by eliminating the FDA.

Yet, in the Declaration of Independence it is stated, in reference to government, “it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

These issues are invaluable, and shouldn’t be leveraged against their cost.

More concerning is that COOL opponents are attempting to use the support of a coalition of businesses — domestic and international — to address a consumer rights issue.

Last I read, the Constitution did not say “We the businesses,” the Gettysburg Address did not say “a government of the businesses, by the businesses, and for the businesses,” rather, these fundamental documents refer to the will of the people; and the people have shown overwhelming support for COOL in the past decade.

A May 2013 survey by the Consumer Federation of America found 90 percent of consumers agree food sellers should be required to indicate on the label the country of origin of fresh meat they sell.

Delegations would be wise to remember they are elected to serve the will of the people, not of the business sector.

In a further effort to defeat COOL, opponents have resorted to using the scare tactic of a WTO authorized retaliation by Canada and Mexico. But for such a retaliation to take place, the parties would need to prove a significant economic impact from COOL. Such proof, says Robert Taylor of Auburn University, does not exist.

In a 2015 study, Taylor concludes COOL had no significant impact on the export markets of Canadian beef. Without a smoking gun, U.S. trade partners would have no warrant for retaliation. Yet, COOL opponents in Congress are using this scare tactic to preempt the WTO process.

Members of Congress have prepared legislation for the repeal of COOL. This would be an unprecedented move, intervening in the WTO process before its completion. Such a repeal would be a significant blow to American sovereignty

Currently, we have labeling laws that require origin labeling on products such as fruits, vegetables and even shirts. Shouldn’t beef and other meat products meet a similar if not higher standard?

You must ask yourself, “Do I as a consumer have the right to know where my food comes from?”

If you think you do, I urge you to contact your congressional delegation and tell them to keep COOL.

If you want to keep COOL a federal law, contact your Congressional representatives by calling the switchboard to the Capitol at 202-224-3121.

Editor’s note: Sombke is president of the South Dakota Farmers Union and a Conde, S.D. farmer and cattleman.