WASHINGTON -- A call by the U.S. Senate's top Democrat for immediate country-of-origin labeling of meat was met with virtually no support from retailers and the food industry.
Sen. Tom Daschle, displaying a package of ground beef with a red, white and blue label saying "100% U.S. Beef," floated the proposal one day after USDA officials confirmed the heifer infected with the nation's first case of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, was imported from Canada.
"At a time when one Canadian cow has raised questions about the safety of our food supply, there is a simple fix," he was quoted as saying. "That fix is to tell consumers the origin of their food."
Yet, retailers do not agree that on-pack labels listing country of origin will adequately address the food-safety aspects of the mad cow disease problem.
"In my mind, his comments are absolutely political," said Rich Niemann Sr., chief executive officer, Niemann Foods, Quincy, Ill., referring to a contentious re-election campaign Daschle faces in his home state of South Dakota.
"I think COOL is so extreme and so far-reaching, it's going to be almost impossible to execute and very costly," he said.
Retailers contacted by SN all said the entire food industry is concerned with safety, but labeling wouldn't help investigators determine what lot, herd or farm infected animals come from.
"We think that a more prudent and less costly way of achieving the same [food-safety] goal would be to increase the monitoring of these foodstuffs as they come into the country, and to perhaps create some kind of certification system when things are imported," said Joe Ramirez, spokesman for Penn Traffic Co., Syracuse, N.Y.
The Food Marketing Insititute, based here, was a vocal opponant when COOL came up for a vote the first time, and the single incident of mad cow disease last month hasn't changed its position on the legislation, according to Bill Greer, director, editorial services.
"The whole program is designed to promote U.S. products," he said. "It was never designed to be a food-safety initiative."
Dan Murphy, vice president, public affairs, American Meat Institute, Arlington, Va., said COOL would not have had any bearing on the mad cow case.
"It's a complete non-issue," he told SN. "Canadian beef is safe; U.S. beef is safe. That's what USDA says, and that's what science says."
The massive labeling program, originally due to take effect this autumn, is to be postponed for two years under a plan approved by the House as part of an omnibus budget bill scheduled for final vote later this month. Daschle has said he and fellow Democrats would try to remove that provision prior to Senate approval.
"We think if the Senators and others decide to defeat this omnibus bill over the COOL provision, it's an extremely short-sighted move," said Bryan Dierlam, director of legislative affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, Denver. He noted that COOL covers beef sold only at retail, and said records show most of that is already domestically sourced.
"If you look at the vast majority of imported beef, it's sold in food service," which is exempt under the current COOL rules, he said.
Bob Buehler, vice president and meat supervisor, Buehler's Fresh Foods, Wooster, Ohio, said COOL should not be pushed on the industry when there are still questions as to its efficacy.
"If it would help consumers, I am in favor of it," he said. "But to turn it into a political football because of the [mad cow disease] situation is ridiculous."
Buehler said that, while customers did come to him with questions regarding the source and safety of the 11-store chain's beef, he has yet to receive one question about country-of-origin labels.