By Mike Stranz, NFU government relations representative

We’re all used to seeing labels on everyday products that tell us where that item was produced. It’s almost a reflex to look for that information.

Given how basic that information seems to be, it is startling to realize that Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) wasn’t required on many foods, including meat, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, and many nuts, until very recently. And now your right to know where food comes from is in jeopardy.

The idea is simple enough: consumers ought to be able to know what country their food comes from. A label that shows the country of origin allows consumers to make informed purchasing decisions and allows farmers and ranchers to proudly distinguish their products at retail.

In 2008, National Farmers Union (NFU) played an instrumental role in making COOL part of the Farm Bill. The law was implemented in 2009 and now you can go to almost any grocery store and find COOL information.

Unfortunately, disputes filed by Canada and Mexico to the World Trade Organization (WTO) have brought the future of COOL into question. Canada and Mexico sued the U.S. in WTO court <http://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/dispu_e/cases_e/ds384_e.htm> , saying that COOL treated American-raised-and-grown food differently. That allegation rings somewhat hollow, considering that both Canada and Mexico have their own versions of COOL.

The WTO Dispute Settlement Panel found that the COOL law <http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC5070867>  itself does not violate WTO rules, but the way in which the U.S. implemented COOL <http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC5074847>  is against the rules of the WTO. Confusing, right?

A bipartisan group of 19 U.S. senators have sent a letter <http://www.agri-pulse.com/Senators_Administration_appeal_WTO_COOL_ruling_12152011.asp>  to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk to appeal the WTO’s decision. NFU and allied organizations in support of COOL are considering the best options as to how to stand up to the WTO’s ruling.

What do you think? As a consumer, do you expect to know – at very least, the country – from where your food comes? Or as a farmer, do you count on being able to distinguish the food you produce with a “Made in the U.S.A.” label?

And do you want to ask the WTO what’s not cool about COOL?

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