Vail Daily column: Labeling practices that aren’t cool
Fancy a pork chop from Zimbabwe, chicken wings from Bangladesh or a juicy steak from Turkmenistan? Or do you prefer your protein raised a little closer to home? If some members of Congress have their way, then American consumers will not know where their food comes from. The House voted to remove country-of-origin labels (COOL) from imported beef, chicken and pork. Not cool.
According to the USDA these labels require retailers to inform consumers where animals were born, raised and slaughtered. Current food products covered by the law include beef, veal, pork, lamb, goat, chicken and most fish. Country of origin is also required for fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables. The law only applies to food sold in grocery stores.
Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, has found strong support among Americans for country-of-origin labeling, indicating it is consistently above 90 percent. However, a frequently quoted 2012 survey from Kansas State University indicating that “typical U.S. consumers are unaware of country of origin labeling and do not look for meat origin information when purchasing beef” was conducted only at Texas grocery stores and a year before the labeling rules went into effect. Would the response today from consumers in Colorado be just as indifferent?
Consistently opposed to the labeling requirements have been the large North American meat processors and our neighbors, Canada and Mexico. Both countries claim that their livestock are at a disadvantage due to the labeling requirements that require their livestock be segregated through every step of the process resulting in higher costs. As a result, meat processors either do not buy their products, or offer a lower price for them.
Canada complained to the World Trade Organization, which found that the labels were discriminatory toward Canada and Mexico. According to the WTO, COOL measures have “a detrimental impact on imported livestock because its recordkeeping and verification requirements create an incentive for processors to use exclusively domestic livestock, and a disincentive against using like imported livestock.” The consumer’s desires were never considered.
Texas Republican Rep. Michael Conaway introduced legislation on May 18 to repeal COOL requirements for beef, pork and chicken. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association is one of Conaway’s largest campaign contributors and is the primary lobbying group for the cattle industry. Tyson, Nestle, PepsiCo, Kraft, Coca-Cola and other big food producers supported the repeal. When the vote came to the House on June 10, Rep. Scott Tipton voted to repeal along with Colorado representatives Perlmutter, Coffman, Buck and Lamborn. Polis and DeGette voted against repealing the labeling requirement.
Canada and Mexico have threatened retaliatory tariffs valued at $3.7 billion on beef, pork, cheese, corn, cherries, maple syrup, chocolate and pasta, plus non-agricultural goods such as mattresses, wooden furniture and jewelry.
To put this into perspective, Mexico and Canada’s exports to the U.S. are more than their exports to every other country on earth combined. The same is true for imports. A whopping 74 percent of Mexican exports are bound for the U.S., primarily oil. And while both are significant trading partners with the U.S., our import and export portfolio is far more diversified. This is going to hurt them way more than it is going to hurt us.
Critics of the rules contend that this has always been about marketing, not food safety. Regardless, as a consumer I want to know where my food is from and then decide for myself if I want to eat blueberries that traveled all the way from Chile or shrimp that journeyed on a slow boat from Vietnam.
I do not think I am alone in this. Despite no requirement to do so, numerous local restaurants recognize that consumers are interested in where their food is sourced. Several highlight the origins of dishes on their menus. Vin 48 offers a grilled pork chop from Creekstone Farms of Kansas and a braised goat from El Regalo Ranch in Salida. Similarly, the Sweet Basil menu highlights some of the origins of their dishes such as a pork loin from California’s Niman Ranch, lamb from Colorado and Barramundi from New Zealand.
This legislation now moves to the Senate. With the Trans Pacific Partnership still in play, Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut sagely observed that despite President Obama’s comments to the contrary that, “No trade agreement is going to force us to change our laws,” the effort to repeal COOL illustrates that “trade agreements have a direct effect on our sovereignty.” American consumers’ right to be informed is being threatened because some Canadians and Mexicans are losing money.
Claire Noble is the author of “State-Sponsored Sex and Other Tales of International Misadventure.” She can be found online at clairenoble.org or follow her on Twitter @thewriteclaire.