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Other views: Country of origin labels would not achieve goals

In response to The Forum's editorial of July 29th, I would like to suggest that there is another side to the story of country of origin labeling. As president of the North Dakota Grocers Association, I want to express my concern with the mandator...

In response to The Forum's editorial of July 29th, I would like to suggest that there is another side to the story of country of origin labeling.

As president of the North Dakota Grocers Association, I want to express my concern with the mandatory country of origin labeling program passed into law as part of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 (PL 107-171). Since the United States Department of Agriculture announced its preliminary rules for implementation in August 2002, it has become increasingly apparent that mandatory system of COOL that places the primary burden for labeling on the retailer is simply unworkable.

The COOL program -- as embodied in USDA's proposed regulations -- requires retailers to provide consumers with information on the entire life and production cycles of covered items. To cite just one example, a cut of beef would have to be labeled with information on where the supplier cow was born, raised and slaughtered. If it was part of a package of ground beef, each lot of meat in the package would have to be identified and labeled similarly in descending order of predominance. In today's integrated economic environment, this could easily be three or more countries.

Although the type of information mandated by the proposed COOL program can only be provided by suppliers, responsibility for making sure that consumers are presented with accurate labels is placed on the retailer. Indeed, these retailers are subject to sizable fines and penalties for failing to give consumers accurate information over which they have no control.

The paperwork and inventory control mechanisms that are necessary to implement this type of labeling program are so cost-prohibitive that it threatens to severely cut into the already paper thin bottom-line of the food retailing industry. Small, family-owned retailers are particularly vulnerable. USDA has estimated that the record keeping alone required to implement a mandatory COOL program will cost the industry $2 billion in labor. This does not include the extensive costs for segregation, labeling, training, administration and fines.

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While the law establishing mandatory COOL was passed with the best of intentions in mind -- i.e. providing consumers with increased information -- the proposed program promises to dramatically increase costs for producers, retailers, and consumers without accomplishing either of these goals.

If we want to keep our retailers in North Dakota, the last thing we need is more federal regulations.

Woodmansee is president of the North Dakota Grocers Association, which has offices in Bismarck.

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Mikkel Pates set the standard for agricultural journalism during his 44-year career in the region, working for Agweek, The Forum and the Worthington Globe.