The different meanings of labeling products and laws – September 2015

There has been a lot in the news recently about labels. COOL labeling, GMO labeling, and the labeling of laws all have different meanings for different people.

Country of Origin Labeling, or COOL, has recently had some setbacks with the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling against the process used by the United States. Opponents of COOL have argued that the rule is costly to implement, doesn’t advance consumer interest and can be achieved by a voluntary process driven by market forces. Proponents argue consumers have, asked for labeling of products from the country of origin, the costs have been artificially inflated by the practices of those opposed and that U.S. products are safer than products from other countries.

What happens to COOL will depend on what the Senate decides, but the House repealed the act by a fairly large margin and like many things agriculture, there were folks on both sides. One of the issues, that of safety, has opponents of COOL saying that the USA label is not a safety label and that the process used by USDA to ensure food coming into our country is what ensures the food is safe.

Of course, most of us who deal with federal agencies soon get pretty cynical towards the agency. Because transportation is so efficient, food comes into the U.S. in large quantities from all over the world. Inspectors don’t inspect every bit of food coming in, they have to sample and test the imports. For the most part I’m sure this system works, but once in a while it can break down. The same system occurs for food in the U.S. too and once in a while things break down here too. However, if you were to ask most Americans if they trust our system of food production against one from a third world country I think most would feel our system is safer than that of a third world country.

None-the-less a country’s brand name can be a tremendous marketing advantage. When I was young something made in Japan was derided and cheap and not worth buying. Then the Japanese got their act together and in a short period of time “Made in Japan” took on a different meaning. The U.S. auto industry learned this the hard way. Whatever form it takes, will a produced in the USA label mean anything to consumers in the future?

Another label issue revolves around efforts in Congress to address labels for Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Like COOL, GMOs have agricultural folks on both sides. However, one of the things that gets lost in the shouting is what constitutes a GMO. Humans have been genetically modifying things since biblical times. As one of my peers pointed out one time, “we don’t eat the pharaoh’s wheat.” So if we want to label GMOs, where should we draw the line? Science has had a steady progression of advancement in genetic modification for a long time.

Dr. Norm Borlaug, who is credited with saving more people than any other person in the world, genetically modified wheat on a grand scale with a lot of effort in the hot Mexican sun along with a team of workers. The point being humans have been modifying plants and animals for millenniums and wanting to label things as a GMO now seems like asking that organic corn be labeled as GMO. When one looks at the type of corn raised by Native Americans we can certainly say it was genetically modified.

The final label item deals with a couple of ranchers who burned up 150 acres of BLM ground in Oregon. The BLM is wanting them to serve more jail time than they already have. What were they charged with you might ask? They were charged with violating a 1996 act called the “Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.” I would like to think that when Congress passed this act they weren’t thinking it would be used to lockup someone who accidentally burned a few acres of BLM ground. If they did, then talk about false labeling of a law. Wait until someone burns up a few thousand acres of federal land. Will they then find out about the effective death penalty part of the act?

By Ken Hamilton, Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation Executive Vice President

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