A Strike Against Transparency: USDA Ends ‘Country of Origin’ Labeling for Beef and Pork

December 22, 2015

Maybe you haven’t noticed, but head to the supermarket and browse the meat cooler, paying close attention to the labels.

On every package of ground beef, chicken, or sausage for sale, you’ll see a line stating where that meat was raised. (“Product of New Zealand” or “Product of USA,” for instance). Country of origin labeling, or COOL, was first required in the 2002 Farm Bill but went into effect for fish in 2005 and all other meats in 2009. It’s the kind of label that has helped consumers make informed decisions while food shopping. Given the outbreak of Mad Cow disease in Brazil, maybe we’d opt for the Canadian beef instead. For many of us, the labels have been a way to know we’re supporting domestic ranchers first and foremost, and 90 percent of Americans support the labels, according to a 2013 Consumer Federation of America poll.

Well, we hope you haven’t gotten used to the country of origin labels on your meat, because they’re going away. Quietly, Congress last week slipped a provision into the $1.4 trillion federal omnibus spending bill that repeals the COOL legislation for beef and pork products, effective immediately. President Obama signed the spending bill on Monday. (COOL remains in place for chicken, lamb, and other niche meat products.)

What does this mean for you?

Principally, you won’t know where the beef or pork you see in the supermarket was raised. Maybe that lamb is from the farm down the street, or more likely, from the other side of the world in New Zealand—a significantly larger number of food miles and overall ecological impact. Then there are the food safety implications: you won’t know, for instance, whether the chuck roast you’re having for dinner was imported from Brazil—the world’s second largest beef producer but a country that has struggled with various outbreaks in its meat supply in recent years.

How did we get here?

Ever since country of origin labeling was enacted, it has been under fire from meat-producing nations abroad who say the labels have hurt meat exports to the United States. You see, it turns out American consumers would rather purchase meat produced locally than in Mexico, Canada, and the 13 other nations from which the U.S. imports its beef and pork. Some domestic beef and pork trade associations praised the labeling requirement for this reason; others saw the labeling requirement as just another added cost even to domestic cattlemen.

The law was challenged and upheld in U.S. courts by some North American meat groups, but in June, the World Trade Organization said the labels were effectively unfair to the non-U.S. nations that supply our meat. In its ruling, the WTO said Canada and Mexico would be justified in levying stiff tariffs against the U.S. for the economic damage they say labeling is doing to their respective meat industries.

A step backward for accountability

In a year that has seen, overall, an increase in corporate accountability and transparency for the foods we buy and eat, the repeal of COOL is, at the end of the day, a blow to consumer peace of mind. In a marketplace where consumers want to know more about the foods they eat rather than less, the COOL repeal was passed under a cloak of secrecy and effectively pulls the curtain shut on meat transparency for many of us, advocates say.

“Section 179 of the spending bill strips U.S. citizens of their right to know the origins of the beef and pork and ground beef and ground pork that hundreds of millions of consumers purchase at retail grocery stores for themselves and their families,” R-CALF, which fought hard for COOL passage, said in a statement after the President signed the bill.

“Congress did this and the President concurred without any congressional debate, let alone public debate,” it continued. “Section 179 was cemented into the massive spending bill behind closed doors.”

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats, TakePart.com, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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