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HUNTIN' DAYLIGHT -- EQUAL OPPORTUNITY BUNGLING

by: Wes Ishmael

Editor's Note: This column was submitted just before BSE was discovered in Washington. It conveys the frustration many producers have felt about the slow pace in developing a standardized, national ID system that would have helped with the current situation.

Ain't nobody happy.

When Senate and House negotiators of the pending Omnibus Appropriations Bill struck a deal in late November to delay implementation of the Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) law until September of 2006 (the language in the Farm Bill calls for September 2004), they effectively chose to resolve nothing. Instead, out of ignorance or intent they opted to increase market uncertainty.

If you're a proponent of COOL, you're likely chapped because a two-year delay in COOL implementation (not yet finalized at this writing—the Senate is expected to vote when they return to Washington toward the end of January) calls into question whether mandatory COOL will ever be able to withstand the special interests, eleventh-hour, back-room favor-trading, and obtuse parliamentary rules that pass for public democratic process these days.

Of course, some of the law's proponents still appear flummoxed by the fact that tracking the origin and production history of cattle requires a standardized ID and tracking system of some sort.

If you're an opponent of mandatory COOL, then you should be more than frustrated that even if the law is delayed, you still have no idea whether you'll ever have to comply with it, how you're supposed to comply, specifically, or when you'd have to begin complying.

To be fair, plenty of the law's opponents are still wearing egg on their face for taking so long to seriously consider the proposed law and its possible passage. Any collective opposition should have occurred pre-law, rather than trying to figure out how to take teeth out of a dog that was allowed to live.

Both proponents and opponents should be thankful for a delay of some kind, though, since cattle have been moving already which would be difficult to make COOL-compliant by next October. That is if the program is supposed to offer consumers more than lip service.

But, no one should be happy. No matter which way the political ball bounces and which side claims ultimate victory, everyone, including the consumer, ends up a loser.

If the law passes as is, even if it's delayed, odds are consumers will pay more at the counter than if a national ID and tracking system had been put in place first. If the law is knocked in the head, which seems appropriate, the industry invites an unnecessary black eye from consumers wondering why they can't have information that most never thought about possessing until the debate started.

Slow Down, I'm the Leader

Even if you support mandatory COOL, surely you've had questions about the law itself—not anyone's interpretation of it—the law that went through the rule making process, including public comment. Suppose you believe consumers want to know exactly what country their food comes from and are actually willing to pay more for homegrown products, out of nationalism if nothing else. How do you reconcile that goal with a law that mandates such labeling, yet prohibits USDA from helping establish an ID and tracking system that makes such verifiable labeling possible?

In other words, if you happen to believe COOL is a good thing at its core, you'll still have a hard time convincing most folks that the legislation behind mandating the practice isn't more flawed and counterfeit than a trader-horse at a thieves auction. And, it's been that way since the beginning.

Likewise, even if you believe the majority of consumers don't care one way or the other where their beef was born and raised, as long as it's safe, tastes good, is predictable and comes at an affordable price, you've got to admit the current COOL hoopla would have had a hard time ever getting traction if a national animal ID and tracking system—which has been talked about in the beef industry for at least three decades—had already been in existence. When you have such an infrastructure, things like COOL get easier, less expensive, and downright inconsequential.

Never mind the wasted ink, hours of committee meetings, urgent phone calls and all of the rest—from both sides—that have gone into making COOL one of the greatest political debacles in recent history. For my money, the worst thing—and few ever talk about it—is that fighting over COOL is a whole lot like deciding whether to build a bull pen with tooth picks or tissue paper. No matter how sincere you are, no matter how much effort you put into it, the design choice is so flawed that it's doomed from the start and you're wasting your time, even though you're busting you're tail.

In this case, verifiable COOL without a national ID and tracking system can never work, whatever Congress decides. Yet the debate continues to rob attention from strides made in developing an ID and tracing system that makes such labeling possible.

Put the COOL cart ahead of a national ID system and producers are going to get to pick up all of the cost for developing one in order to comply. Establish a standardized, collective, cohesive ID and tracking system first—such as the one being recommended by the U.S. Animal Health Association—and producers can at least try to recoup the cost they are putting into building such a system.

Instead of focusing on an ID and tracking system, though, plenty of folks are working their worry stones overtime, waiting for the Senate to decide the fate of a law that, without national ID and tracing, is just wishful thinking, no matter how much money you throw at it or how many people you penalize for non-compliance.

Or, they're figuring out ways to delay having to make a decision one way or the other.

There's Always Tomorrow

In the case of COOL, even before it has been officially delayed, several organization have been pulling together task forces to take another crack at devising a voluntary plan now that they see COOL proponents are serious.

For instance, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association formed a task force that plans to present recommendations for a voluntary COOL program to members during its annual membership meeting later this month in Phoenix. In broad terms, recommendations include conducting market research as to the consumer and producer benefits of such a program and outline how pilot projects might be conducted to test various models.

All that sounds reasonable enough, except for the fact the COOL law passed as part of the current farm bill calls for mandatory COOL. So, it seems a little like spending operating cash after you've already been denied the loan.

For their part, USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS)—charged with administering the current COOL law—has extended the period for public comment through the end of February. According to A.J. Yates, AMS administrator, “Based on the inquiries we are receiving from both proponents and opponents of the program about its implementation status, we are extending the comment period to ensure that those wishing to comment have the opportunity to do so. We strongly encourage all interested parties to submit comments.”

As for a National Animal ID program, the U.S. Animal Health Association (AHA) accepted recommendations from the National ID Development team to create a system last October. But, AHA requested more implementation details from species-specific groups, who will then furnish these details back to the National ID team, who will then go back to AHA to see if revised recommendations pass muster. Yes, that is exactly like creating committees to create committees to create committees, etc.

In the meantime, the U.S. still has no definitive plan or implementation schedule to prop up our nation's ability to track livestock in the event of an outbreak of Foreign Animal Disease such as Foot and Mouth. It still has no infrastructure that makes things like COOL possible. It has lots of well-intentioned folks, sincerely trying to get something done, spinning their wheels.

Until the industry can figure out a way to collectively agree which holes need filling first and who is going to do the shoveling, The First Rule of Holes comes to mind: “If you want to get out of one, quit digging.”

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