Ever wonder where your bacon, hamburger, or sirloin steak hails from? Well if you live in the US, you may just have to keep wondering. After more than a decade of battling with the World Trade Organization, Congress passed a law that will make it more difficult for Americans to determine just how far their meat had to travel to reach their fork.
In 2002, amid fears of mad cow disease from imported cattle, Congress introduced the country-of-origin-labeling (COOL) law, requiring that all packaging of red meat products sold in the US include the locations the animal was born, raised, and slaughtered. The meatpacking industry strongly opposed the move, citing that it would cause them expensive, unnecessary record-keeping, and could lead to $3.6 billion in potential retaliatory tariffs from Canada and Mexico, who feared discrimination against their products exported to America. Now, after 14 years of the WTO ruling against them, US lawmakers allege that they had no choice but to remove the labels, claiming that the repeal became inevitable once the the retaliation was imminent.
While the meatpacking industry very much considers this a victory, American consumers aren’t exactly celebrating with them. While knowing whether your hamburger patties are from Canada, Minnesota, or Mexico may be of little concern to some, for many, the withholding of this information creates a general sense of distrust toward the meatpacking industry, and concerns about decreased food safety, quality, and informed purchasing ability are now top of mind.
Food Safety & Quality
Many COOL advocates feel that the pushback from meat industry is less about extra record-keeping and potential expensive tariffs, and more about increasing their bottom line by making it easier to produce larger amounts of lower-quality products. By removing COOL from packaging, consumers are more likely to unknowingly purchase meat products from countries with less strict regulations and processing practices, as well as from countries in which foodborne illness outbreaks have recently occurred.
Many consumers also are quite simply against the idea of their meat being shipped halfway around the world before reaching their dinner plate. Animal products are perishable, and the image of a piece of red meat in transit for days, or even weeks, can’t help but make its consumer uneasy.
If our clothing, electronics, and basically every other product we own prominently states whether it was “Made in China” or “Made in America”, shouldn’t it be the same for food? A survey conducted by the Consumer Federation of America found that 90 percent of Americans want to know their meat’s country of origin. At a time when eating locally is so on-trend, it would seem as though COOL is necessary for consumers to make informed decisions.
There are also COOL advocates who are in favor of “buying American” for economic reasons, and want to be able to purchase with this intention if they so choose. The elimination of this law will make this possibility obsolete.
Supporters of the repeal maintain that the labeling rule is a marketing measure, not a safety measure. However, consumers are not convinced, and quite frankly don’t care either way, as they strongly feel they have a right to know from where their consumable good originated. With such strong consumer pushback, it’s likely this issue is not over, and the WTO and Congress will be forced to come to more of a middle ground.
Want to ease your mind until then? Shop at local farms, cook your meat properly, or give up red meat entirely and send the meatpacking industry a message.