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Timing Is Everything PDF Print E-mail
Written by Steve Dittmer   
Tuesday, 24 July 2007
AFF Sentinel Vol.4#25

For several years, meat industry groups that recognized the huge complexities and costs mCOOL would mandate -- with little benefit for customers -- have staved off implementation.

However, Democratic control of Congress and export difficulties in China have dramatically changed the politics. Recent negotiations during Farm Bill markup demonstrated what a difference a year makes.

The result -- at least the first step -- is Farm Bill language that implements a somewhat revised version of mCOOL.

These seeds of change were sown over recent years, as a Republican Congress angered enough voters that Democrats won control of Congress -- and committee chairmanships. That put Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN) in power, representing a liberal party that favors more government control over business. When Peterson was announced as committee chairman, we noted that his re- election campaign event concluded with a big reception in the National Farmer's Union tent.

Therefore, it came as no surprise that when invitations to testify before the Ag Committee on the Farm Bill came out, the National Farmer's Union (NFU) and Center for Rural Affairs were given center stage. They espoused more government controls, limits on cattle ownership, penalties for growth and businesslike behavior, and more government involvement in setting prices.*

Favoring mandatory COOL in his testimony, NFU President Tom Buis demonstrated his totally inadequate grasp of the situation by testifying that if fish -- who have neither ears nor eartags -- can be subjected to mCOOL, then 1,000-lb. steers shouldn't be a problem.

He totally ignored the complexities of carrying the identity of that (out-of-date-sized) steer through processing onto roughly 300 individual packages.

Peterson assigned three people to closet themselves with committee staff and hammer out some kind of compromise -- something not on the dance card in previous years. Two of those three were NFU people: "Fish ears" Buis and NFU lobbyist Bart Chilton. The third person, Randy Russell, represented the Meat Promotion Coalition, a group that recognizes the value of industry segments serving the consumer and not destroying efficiency by making life difficult for each other.

The Coaltion included producer associations -- like NCBA and the National Pork Producers Council - and processor associations like AMI & NMA and processing firms. These groups are trying to avoid inflicting mCOOL on everyone back to cow/calf producers.

Then there was China. As the Ag Committee worked, the FDA's congressional oversight subcommittee held hearings on import inspection and China's export control. Seriously concerned about a key linchpin of its economy, China had already executed the head of its food and drug agency for malfeasance. However, unprecedented episodes involving safety failures in pet food and other items triggered congressional concern over the origin of food products -- even though country-of-origin does not solve the question of food safety, affect food production in any country or provide food inspection.

Of course, Congress is not noted for matching solutions with problems. But heck, they are terrific at solving problems that don't exist. So it's puzzling that when the group huddled to produce mCOOL revisions, that other group noted for "solving" non-existent problems, R-CALF, was nowhere in evidence. Mr. Bullard was observed sitting on a siding in an overflow room.

Nevertheless, the China issue was visible enough that appearing to do something was a concern for Congress. So ... a different stage with different players than one year ago.

What did the "closet-eers" hammer out? In general, the agreement softened definitions, so that neither packers nor producers are required to maintain anything beyond "normal business records." USDA would still have audit authority to examine those normal business records, like animal health papers, import documents and producer affidavits. Additionally, fines for retailers were reduced to $1,000 per violation.

Possible package labels could include one called "Multiple Countries of Origin," which would list "all of the countries in which the animal may have been born, raised or slaughtered." Another would be called "Imported for Immediate Slaughter," which would require the label to list the country of export and country of slaughter (U.S.). Ground beef could be labeled with a list "of all reasonably possible countries of origin."

This compromise reduces -- to some extent -- cost and liability for the beef chain. However, it still costs huge sums the industry doesn't have, provides no useful consumer information, and achieves none of the food safety goals proponents espouse.

*AFF Sentinel issues Sen. V4 #14-#17

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