Policy could put two largest U.S. export markets at risk
By CAROL RYAN DUMAS
National Milk Producers Federation wants Congress to put the breaks on proposed legislation that would expand mandatory country-of-origin labeling to include dairy products.
U.S. Sens. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., Al Franken, D-Minn., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, introduced the Dairy COOL Act earlier this month to extend mandatory labeling to milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream and butter.
Chris Galen, vice president of communications for National Milk Producers Federation, said in light of the attacks on country-of-origin labeling of meat by Canada and Mexico, now is the wrong time to add dairy to the mix of existing trade disputes.
Both Canada and Mexico have challenged the U.S. country-of-origin labeling law for meat in a complaint filed with the World Trade Organization. Canada's most recent complaint was filed Oct. 7., and Mexico filed Oct. 9.
Mexico is the No. 1 destination for U.S. dairy exports and Canada is No. 2, Galen said.
"We don't potentially want to be in the same position where Mexico or Canada would retaliate," he said.
While the senators focused mostly on food safety and American consumers' right to know the origin of food products, they said the legislation would also benefit U.S. dairy farmers.
"This legislation will help American dairy farmers stand out in a crowded marketplace," Franken said. "They need every tool at their disposal to weather the current dairy crisis."
Feingold and Brown said dairy farmers would benefit because labeling would identify premium U.S. dairy products, desired by consumers.
"Without strong labeling requirements, American farmers and consumers are at a real disadvantage," Feingold said.
National Milk's board of directors fears the move would do more harm than good.
"Given the ongoing controversy over, and challenge with, implementing country of origin for meat products, and the learning curve involved in that regulation, we believe now is not the time to apply a similar requirement to dairy products," according to a statement by the board.
The current dispute over meat labeling is an indication of the challenges involved in this type of labeling, Galen said. In the midst of the present dairy crisis, the industry can't afford to lose any more exports, which account for about 8 percent of U.S. production.
In addition, dairy COOL would apply to a broader range of dairy products than the meat COOL regulation, complicating enforcement and labeling concerns.
Most imported dairy products, particularly cheese, are already voluntarily labeled with country of origin because it brings a premium price in the marketplace.
"We're not certain what country of origin would do that would be different than what we do now," Galen said.
National Milk contends the U.S. regulatory requirements that already exist, which are applied to both domestic and imported dairy products, provide significant oversight over imports.
Feingold said there is need for more oversight.
"With the discovery last year of widespread use of melamine in Chinese dairy products, consumers deserve to know whether the milk used to produce the dairy products they buy meets the high safety standards used in the U.S.," he said.
Staff writer Carol Ryan Dumas is based in Twin Falls. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
National Milk Producers Federation: www.nmpf.org
Information on Dairy COOL Act: www.opencongress.org/bill/111-s1783/show