COOL Lite Bill Gets Mixed Reviews

by 5m Editor
23 September 2003, at 12:00am

US - Legislation aimed at streamlining the current COOL law introduced by Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) has drawn praise from consumer advocates and some cattle producers, but little enthusiasm from the rest of the food industry, reports Food Chemical News.

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The bill (HR 3083), which has been dubbed "COOL Lite," would remove recordkeeping requirements, allow producer self-certification of commodities covered by the current law - meat, fish, fresh produce and peanuts - and strike the current law's audit verification provisions. It would also delete a provision prohibiting the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from using a mandatory animal identification system to verify country-of-origin.

The bill has been endorsed by the National Farmers Union and the Consumer Federation of America. In drafting the bill, Peterson's staff met with representatives of producer and retailer groups but assumed opposition from meat packers from the outset.

"Nobody likes the current law," a Peterson aide said . "USDA is going to write a ridiculous rule to implement it."

Art Jaeger, associate director of the Consumer Federation of America, said that his group has endorsed the bill because it's "at least an attempt to address the concerns raised by the critics. To the extent it calms people down, great. Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater."

However, meat industry groups were quick to denounce the proposed legislation. Dan Murphy, a spokesman for the American Meat Institute, called the bill "one-sided, inappropriate and unfair."

"It's hardly a fix," Murphysaid. "It's pandering to one interest group. It takes livestock producers off the hook. When you allow self-certification [of cattle], it's like allowing you to self-certify your tax return. Peterson's bill lets producers escape the burden of compliance. Liability falls on the meatpackers and retailers."

Mark Dopp, AMI vice president for regulatory affairs, said in a statement that the bill "would effectively preclude meatpackers from being able to confirm that the country-of-origin information they receive from suppliers and provide to customers is accurate…The Peterson bill does not address the fundamental concerns about the existing [COOL] law. Instead, his bill affirmatively prohibits meatpackers from doing what is necessary to protect themselves from liability and ensure that the information provided to their customers is accurate - as required."

Brian Dierlam, legislative affairs director at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said that the mere fact the bill was introduced "shows that there's something wrong with the current law. Peterson has tried to get at some of the points that have been raised, but the bill doesn't do what our members want it to do. We'll keep pushing for what our members want."

NCBA has insisted on a voluntary COOL program for cattle born and raised in the United States. "Our bottom line is that we want to replace the current law with a workable voluntary program," Dierlam said.

Acknowledging that the Peterson bill would ease recordkeeping burdens on livestock producers, Dierlam commented, "Just because you don't have to do something doesn't mean it won't cost you money. You still have to have compliance, and compliance costs money."

The Peterson bill "does little to remedy the situation and will still result in costs for U.S. pork producers with no benefits," Jon Caspers, president of the National Pork Producers Council, said in a statement. "While the Peterson bill is an admirable attempt to fix the existing [COOL] law, it does nothing to address the fundamental concerns that pork producers have about this legislation. The fact that this bill attempts to find a solution to this burdensome and costly law, demonstrates that there are problems with it."

Caspers said the bill "essentially provides more exemptions for food service and restaurants, but excludes more people from informing consumers about the country-of-origin of their meat products. It takes the accountability out of the system and perpetrates a fraud on consumers who traditionally have had confidence in their food supply due to meaningful and truthful labels…It takes the teeth out of the law and renders it meaningless."

Stephanie Childs, spokeswoman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, said COOL Lite demonstrates growing recognition in Congress that the current law needs to be fixed, "but this bill doesn't address our concerns. It still requires mandatory COOL, and we're concerned about processed food definitions that go above and beyond what's required in the law. We still give COOL a big thumbs down."

Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, described the Peterson bill as "a helpful point of discussion" but little more. "Clearly, there's an interest in making the law better," he said . "But I don't know that this is the place to start."

Stenzel said the bill "reflects the anxiety on the Hill, but I don't think Peterson is going to try to move it. It's a stalking horse out there. I think when [USDA's proposed regulations] come out, that's when you'll see some action."

The UFFVA last week urged USDA to release its proposed regulations as soon as possible to allow sufficient time for industry review. "Despite our concerns about the potential consequences of this law, Congress will not move to significantly improve, delay, or repeal the underlying law until they see how USDA has responded to the many concerns that have been raised," the association said in a Sept. 15 statement.

"Once those proposed regulations are published, United intends to thoroughly assess whether USDA has crafted a workable system of rules acceptable to our member companies," the group said.

The produce trade association noted that agriculture committees in both the House and Senate have asked for its views once the regulations are published, "and we intend to aggressively pursue Congressional review at that time, and whatever action is needed."

UFFVA said it would "welcome hearing the concerns of our retail customers who are on the front line and would face the first impact of this law, as well as the grower associations who believe in it so fervently…Only then can we work together to ensure that the regulations to implement this law work to the benefit of our industry and the consumer, or if not, launch the next steps in Congress to see that it is changed."

Source: National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) - 22nd September 2003

5m Editor