Florida Cattlemen's Association, National Cattlemen's Beef Association support repeal of food labeling legislation

MANATEE -- Legislation designed to repeal a requirement to label where foods are produced has the local cattle industry debating the merits of labeling -- and the regulations that go with it.

Local calf and cow producers have no problem with consumers asking where beef comes from. They aren't OK with the effects the country of origin labeling law has on the industry.

The country of origin labeling law, otherwise known as COOL, was implemented through the 2002 Farm Bill and requires supermarkets and suppliers to disclose the country of origin on a wide range of products including meats, fish, nuts, fruits and vegetables.

Last week, the World Trade Organization ruled COOL discriminates against foreign meat markets and favors domestic suppliers. The ruling initiates a WTO process that will determine the level of retaliatory tariffs Mexico and Canada can impose.

It's an easy law to follow when produce is involved because it doesn't require processing or feeding like cattle does, said Jim Strickland, a fourth-generation cattle rancher based in Myakka City. At Strickland Ranch and Exports, he and his wife, Renee, broker cattle out of the United States, feed cattle, and sell cattle to feedlots out West.

"If you bring a young calf in from Canada or Mexico and you run it with Florida calves, you graze it or put it into a feed lot and you're trying to keep track of calves that are coming in, it's just so cumbersome," Strickland said.

Under COOL, cattle producers and feeders have to segregate calves and cows from Canada, Mexico and the United States. Oftentimes, the measures make processes costlier and more burdensome.

"I'm a firm believer in knowing where our food comes from," Strickland said. "The problem with COOL is it was so broad that it was hard to implement."

Colin Woodall, vice president of government affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said the burden is often passed to producers when cattle reach the processing and packing stage.

"When they go to packing, they are discounted anywhere from $35 to $60 a head because of their country of origin," Woodall said. "Those animals would not be discounted if COOL were not in place."

But some local ranchers can also see why people support COOL. Cully Rowell, a longtime rancher and Myakka City resident, said he won't make his final decision about COOL until "the final verdict comes out."

Through his own experience with similar laws, he can see why some people are adamant about knowing where the products they're buying come from.

"There's a lot of people, the older ones of us, who have gone down the road with especially medicine and sprays and stuff like that that we cannot use in the U.S.," Rowell said. "It was banned, but they did not ban the production of it. So they manufacture it and send it to another country, which uses it and then ships that product to us."

But national groups are concerned about the WTO ruling involving Canada and Mexico and its effect on the industry.

"Both of those countries are each worth over $1 billion just to our industry," Woodall said. "If we have a 100 percent tariff, it's U.S. producers that end up eating those costs."

In addition to two of the largest U.S. trade partners seeking to impose retaliatory tariffs because of COOL implications on trade, cattle producers are seeing falling prices and no rise in domestic demand.

The Stricklands, the NCBA and The Florida Cattlemen's Association support legislation to overturn COOL endorsed by 78 U.S. representatives, including Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Gainesville, and Rep. Thomas Rooney, R-Florida District 17, who represents Charlotte, DeSoto and Hardee counties and parts of East Manatee, Hillsborough, Polk and Lee counties.

Dusty Holley, director of field services for the Florida Cattlemen's Association, said the organization can't get behind COOL.

"We have no problem with folks wanting to know where their beef comes from, but the way the COOL regulation is written it is cumbersome to deal with," Holley said. "It's just a failed experiment."

In the 2002 Farm Bill's economic analysis summary, the USDA found little evidence consumers are willing to pay a price for country of origin labeling. It also reports an "estimated first-year incremental cost for growers, producers, processors, wholesalers, and retailers ranging from $582 million to $3.9 billion."

But a study completed by Auburn University said COOL does not negatively impact the U.S. meat export market.

The "analysis found that COOL did not directly cause the declines in livestock exports to the United States, which largely coincided with a substantial economic downturn that sapped demand for more expensive meat products," the study's summary reads.

Strickland said he, too, wants to know where his food comes from.

"The problem is when I see it costs the meat industry over a billion dollars to implement this and in the studies we have seen that consumers aren't using that information, why carry it forward?"

Janelle O'Dea, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow her on Twitter @jayohday.