Commentary: New rules un-COOL

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As tougher Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) rules are set to be imposed by USDA, the immediate reaction from the industry is decidedly uncool.

Under current rules, meat processors can co-mingle beef trim and other whole-muscle cut from different countries as long as they are labeled appropriately. The new rules would ban mingling meat cuts from different sources, other than for ground meat.

The leading U.S. beef companies are implying that the new rules would make it impractical to buy foreign livestock.

“[The new rules] create even more difficult segregation requirements that will even further injure production in Canada, Mexico and importantly the United States,” Bill Thoni, Cargill's vice president of cattle procurement, wrote in a letter to USDA. He said that Cargill's February shutdown of its Plainview, Texas, plant was due to unreliable cattle supply.

The new regulations are due to a compliance order from the World Trade Organization that all meat sold in the United States must carry labeling stating where an animal was born, raised and processed.

According to Reuters reporting, Canadian and Mexican meat exporters claim the new rules would hurt cattle and pig shipments that have already dropped during the last four years due to existing COOL regulations. The Canadian government has threatened a possible retaliatory strike against U.S. imports, and is hoping Mexico will join in.

“What the Americans have proposed as a response to the WTO ruling does not get the job done—it actually makes things worse,” Canadian Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz told Reuters, adding that Canada might ask the WTO to approve similar rules on other products, as well.

Mistaken assumptions

From the very beginning, country of origin labeling was a bad idea. Conceived as a protectionist measure by certain producer groups, the notion that consumers would flock to purchase products carrying a Made in the USA label proved to be about as solid as a daydream.

The impact of compliance cut both ways: U.S. meat companies got stuck with the costs of recordkeeping, while despite polls showing that a majority of consumers “wanted to know where their food comes from,” retailers found out that meat packages carrying the Canadian maple leaf weren’t a drawback for American consumers, costs being comparable.

There was no food-safety issue underlying the impetus to enact COOL, as proponents tried to claim in the wake of BSE cases here and in Canada beginning 10 years ago. And there was even less consumer loyalty than even the most optimistic cheerleaders for the labeling believed.

People purchase fresh meat on the basis of price, appearance and to a lesser degree, the “credibility” of the retail establishment. Commodities don’t benefit from nationalistic labeling that does nothing to upgrade perceived value, other than raise the price-per-pound unnecessarily.

Currently, meat and livestock trade between Canada and the United States is worth more than $5 billion a year, which is now further jeopardized by the new COOL rules. Canadian ranchers claim to have lost $1 billion in sales due to existing rules, according to Minister Ritz.

U.S. imports of Canadian hogs have dropped 40% over the last five years to 5.65 million animals in 2012; Canadian cattle imports fell by half to 786,373 head during the same time period, according to USDA data.

Two years ago, a pork producer in Manitoba explained in simple, elegant terms why cross-border trade was mutually beneficial.

“Up here, we have cheaper land and energy costs, which are well-suited for nursery operations,” he told me. “Down in the Midwest, they have access to cheaper feed for finishing. It makes perfect economic sense for us to breed them, and for the Americans to feed them.”

And here’s the ultimate irony: The intent of the complaint filed by Canada and Mexico was aimed at loosening the rules “discriminating” against imported livestock. However, instead of relaxing the rules, U.S. regulators came up with even tougher requirements, arguing the same rules applied to meat product packaged in the United States ought to apply to other countries.

Although USDA officials said that the changes would satisfy the WTO, it doesn’t seem like anyone else is going to be very happy.

Not that USDA cares.

“I don’t think it’s our responsibility necessarily to respond to what Mexico or Canada say we need to do,” USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack told Reuters. “Our response is be consistent with the WTO directive, as we understand what WTO said—that while every country has the right to label, the labeling that we had developed was not adequate.”

I can guarantee this: The new COOL rules will prove to be equally “not adequate.”

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

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New York  |  May, 24, 2013 at 05:28 PM

I always look to see where the food came from when shopping at the market. I'm sure they are many just like me. What have the food producers have to hide, obviously something. And I don't believe the food industry should have no say in this matter. It's like letting the fox guard the chicken coop, we know they don't have the consumers best interest at hand, that's for sure....

joe poppa    
USA  |  May, 24, 2013 at 06:57 PM

I have nothing against Canadian products but will not buy food from Mexico or China, where pollution is rampant and standards are low.

May, 25, 2013 at 12:47 AM

I would rather my meat does say where it comes from, would pick USA beef for sure......Mexico shipped here, no thanks.

May, 25, 2013 at 05:30 AM

Its our right to know what we put in our bodies and where it comes from.

new jersey  |  May, 25, 2013 at 07:59 AM

Yeah, I want to know where my food comes from. However, its not Canada I fear, but food from China and such. Their own people don't trust their food. Why should we? How about a North American label?

Donald Berrian    
Massachusetts  |  May, 25, 2013 at 08:01 AM

It is impossible to make any sense out of this article without some explanation of the WTO's role in this. What was the WTO's ruling and what was the US consenting to?

nj  |  May, 25, 2013 at 08:02 AM

I certainly want to know exactly what I'm eating. If exports are less; we will pay less here based on supply/demand. Let them eat whatever they want abroad; just don't call it American if it's mixed with something else. In China they were caught mixing rat & cats with beef and selling it as hamburger. Yikes!!!!!!

Tony Marq    
NC  |  May, 25, 2013 at 08:55 AM

Given the disappearing meat in meat products, this step is seriously needed. Now, when I have beef, I'm not sure if the animals was ever healthy. The beef looks and feels sickly, and honestly, I have pretty much stopped eating beef. If the industry wants to continue to contaminate the population with questionable products, so be it, but at least deal with its repercussions.

Texas  |  May, 25, 2013 at 09:32 AM

I certainly do care where my food comes from, and if the sellers have something to hide, I need to know that, too. The simple truth is all that's required in labeling. Leave it.

Wichita  |  May, 25, 2013 at 09:50 AM

OK, so some retailer somewhere pastes labels saying "USA" on do you know he/she's telling you straight? There is no way to verify the COOL claim without a certification system like National Animal Identification System (NAIS). Those COOL claims are no more than a hopeful suggestion and not much of a promise. So, I will label my products COOL from USA or Belgium or Hooterville Station if I think people will pay more for it. Just one more way to scam the buying public. What a colossal waste of time and resources merely to appease a handful of handwringing orthorexics.

East Coast  |  May, 25, 2013 at 09:59 AM

Not only do I want to know where it came from I want to make sure nothing ever happens like mingling of different meats together like some idiot mixing horse meat with cow beef or bison. I love beef meat and bison but will never buy horse meat. If I ever find that horse meat is sold as unmarked mystery meat or pseudo beef then I think a class action lawsuit is deemed in the works. I never want to see anything marked as PLAIN MEAT. We are just asking for honesty. If you can not be honest then why stay in business?

TX  |  May, 25, 2013 at 11:07 AM

Ralphie, You don't understand the intended purpose and wording of the NAIS law. It was intended for DISEASE tracking only in case of major disease outbreak, never food traceability. Besides the NAIS ID tags come off when the hide comes off at slaughter. NAIS is also supposed to be a private database only accessible by state and federal veterinarians responsible for disease tracking and outbreaks. On paper it looked good until people like yourself started hijacking the system for non-disease tracking purposes. It seems awful odd that people want to micromanage US producers tracking back to the farm, but we can't even know what foreign country meat products come from much less the ranch in the foreign country it came from. People are complaining about the high price of beef now, but they don't want to pay the producers the premiums for the time and resources needed to supply the data for that extra value to the end product. Have you noticed lately that McDonald's is discontinuing its Certified Angus Beef burgers because the price was higher than people were willing to pay?

Illinois  |  May, 25, 2013 at 03:35 PM

I find it incredible that a smearily printed deck of playing cards in a dollar store has to show its country of origin, but my cardiovascular medicine doesn't. Why?

Marilyn Mayers    
New York  |  May, 25, 2013 at 05:23 PM

Consumers have a right to know where our food comes from. I find it interesting that the USDA wants the labeling. However when it comes to labeling GMO our government won't do it. Because too many of our senators (Roy Blunt), house members, secretaries (Vilsak) and judges (Clarence Thomas) were/are on Monsanto's payroll.

New York  |  May, 25, 2013 at 05:24 PM

Consumers have a right to know where our food comes from. I find it interesting that the USDA wants the labeling. However when it comes to labeling GMO our government won't do it. Because too many of our senators (Roy Blunt), house members, secretaries (Vilsak) and judges (Clarence Thomas) were/are on Monsanto's payroll.

oregon  |  May, 25, 2013 at 11:56 PM

The NCBA has become the reflection of the dirty politics just like the OBAMA administration. Forget that people want to know the safety and quality of the food they are buying. The packers have paid big money to D.C. lobbyists to prevent that, increasing their profits.

New York  |  May, 26, 2013 at 12:23 PM

How is this even an issue? Of course, we should know where the product was produced and to mix up products and not reveal their point of origin, serves no one other than the meat industry, in this case. Frankly, I never knew that there was meat from other countries being imported for sale here without being labeled as such. This is worrisome. I don't have a problem with a lot of countries but when the World Anti-Doping Agency warns against meat from Mexico as being ladened with clenbuterol, a drug that rids the body of fat and adds muscle. It is considered a performance enhancing drug. Since it is so prevelant in Mexico, athletes that perform there are given a pass and will not be prosecuted if it show up in their blood within reasonable limits. We leave ourselves open to the mercy of the industry, if we allow them to make decisions about labeling. We have already heard enough about horse meat to fill a trotting track.

Joe Oberman    
Providence  |  May, 26, 2013 at 01:06 PM

The beef from England's mad cow made it to South Africa, where did it go from there? The people who live here and control the cattle industry want everyone to believe they are Americans. i don't think when their sole interest is not protecting their neighbors, which are the consumers. There is something very wrong with OUR country and the way wealthy educated people treat those that are not as fortunate as they are. The upper class has become so corrupt with greed and willing to destroy their our country from within.

May, 26, 2013 at 01:44 PM

I'm a vegetarian and feel Greeat - lots of vegetables, fruits and no animal has to die for me to live

Connecticut  |  May, 26, 2013 at 01:57 PM

Mexico is in North America.

Midwest  |  May, 26, 2013 at 02:28 PM

Bill - you have NO idea if there are non-disease related issues that need to be tracked. None of us do, our food has been demonized (and processed down to what common sense would dictate are unhealthly levels) for years (decades). For all we know there are genetic implications that none of us will witness in this lifetime, that therefore wouldn't not currently be consider disease related issues. Just because hard times are pushing for lower prices, doesn't mean we should cave to low quality "standards". People would still chain smoke if they weren't forced to face the truth. Get real and stop the nonsense.

Frederick MD  |  May, 26, 2013 at 02:33 PM

The standards need to be enforced, in order for me to buy beef. There are people all the time trying to cheat the system, I am not naive when I say that sometimes I am not really sure what I am eating at the chinese restaurant :). Just a fe links so ppl understand the problem: There are people trying to "import" illegal bush meat from different countries. Here is a cool story:

May, 26, 2013 at 02:34 PM

The fact that they constantly fight any sort of labeling makes vegetarianism more appealing every day. I've even started ordering salads for appetizers.

ny  |  May, 26, 2013 at 02:49 PM

Sure ,I want to be poisoned with chinese rat and road kill meat sold here unmarked as to where its from and pushed as beef jerky ,MMMMM yummy

Capt. Zyloon    
Vancouver Washington  |  May, 26, 2013 at 03:23 PM

I gave up eating beef long ago it's too expensive and It makes me actually "Feel" poorly. Like I am getting bubble wrapped or a parking citation or bad news from my fav Girl

US  |  May, 26, 2013 at 03:24 PM

Exactly, the elite that have committed atrocities across the globe in our name have now brought their criminal disregard for people back to their own country. U.S. Citizens are the newest victims of U.S. Imperialism. The global elite don't maintain loyalty to any one country. As far as they are concerned, the U.S. is just another place on the board of their real-life RISK game. They've spent the last 30 years making the U.S. middle class as poorly paid as possible so that they can compete globally on exports. Until they get the middle class down to the same living standard as those in China, they'll continue the assault. Of course, it also kills the consumer market when you destroy the middle class, but these people are to narcissistic personality-disordered to understand economics on a long range scale. Pure capitalism is a last man standing cage match. There's only one winner when left to run it's course. Global trade could be good but not when it's run by the people who stand to benefit the most. When Monsanto writes our agriculture laws, it's time to force our 'leaders' into paying attention to the little guys. That means political action on a grand scale by a PAC of U.S. Citizens acting for all U.S. Citizens. It's sad you have to have a PAC and a lobbyist to get your Senator to operate in the best interest of his constituents, but that's what our political system has become, a bought and paid for fraud.

Fallon Nevada  |  May, 26, 2013 at 03:55 PM

If you folks knew how China uses fertilizer, you'd barf! Because, they use human waste -- taken straight from the outhouse to the fields. Recall the dog food scandal? Pedigree dog food nearly killed my service dog. I was only able to keep her alive longer (4.5 more years) but her kidneys failed and she went to sleep in my arms. And by the way, American farmers include a huge dollop of animal waste -- into feed for beef cattle. Chicken factories? (can't hardly be called farms) I read a trade magazine for the chicken trade. One producer was quoted as saying "If I couldn't feed half dung, I'd go broke." Dung in stockyards is scraped up, liquified and put back into the feed, on the theory that 'there is still some nutrition in it. I can no longer eat beef or pork. The slaughter of both animals is anything but 'humane.' The dog food trade takes heads, udders, guts (dung still in them) downer cattle too sick for human consumption, road kill, meat that has aged out in the supermarket, and it is flung into that mess, plastic cases and all. There's more, and it's way worse than you can imagine.

hemet  |  May, 26, 2013 at 04:40 PM

We do the same thing here in the states, we use black water for fertilizer.

Arizona  |  May, 26, 2013 at 04:41 PM

Example Canada I bet anything that does not hold true if my meat said made in Mexico or some other god forbidden place.

Charles Weber    
Chiloquin, OR  |  May, 26, 2013 at 04:59 PM

Unfair to the "it's okay, we can decide for you because we have your best interest at heart" foreign and domestic cattle and hog consortium? The language being used by "those that don't want you to be able to decide for yourself" sounds so one dimensional and clearly concocted to eliminate the belief that meat from outside the USA is not as good. Different countries "allow" for the use of growth enhancements into the food supply that THEY deem safe to use and the USA leads amongst many of them. I do not know about what Canada and Mexico allow and I am learning what our government says is OK and I DO NOT want to NOT KNOW any longer. Do you?

USA  |  May, 26, 2013 at 05:53 PM

Almost every time when I see an article having to do with American / canadian business relations I hear the canadians degrading the Americans and their businesses. I think this is a good move for canada eh, now you (canada) can figure out your own business plans without those worthless, greedy, American capitalists. Good luck.

AZ  |  May, 26, 2013 at 05:57 PM

I have almost totally stopped buying ground meat because I can seldom find any that is pure USA. I am becoming more and more a plant-based eater because I want to know what is in my food and where it comes from.

Alberta  |  May, 28, 2013 at 03:22 PM

Canadians have lost all respect for US integrity related to trade issues. It is very much a one sided situation and Canada is better off developing trade relationships with other more trusting countries. COI issue is costing US consumers money they don't even realize and has decimated Canadian livestock producers who believed in US integrity. US is foregoing a reliable source of energy by rejecting the value of pipeline for Alberta oil and lumber producers have been unfairly targeted. Trade is great when it works for US but look out when politics get in way. Seems Obamania has seeped into all segments of US society and is now the "US"way.

sask  |  May, 31, 2013 at 12:08 AM

you say you are a vegetarian and dont want animals to die, so quit eating all their food.

Kansas  |  January, 02, 2014 at 07:49 AM

Dan, You are part of the problem being a reporter and packer puppet. Consumers like yours who have commented should shed a light on your lies that COOL is bad. I have been involved with COOL since day one in 1998. Call me a protectionist but honesty is not a bad thing. The LIARS, THUGS AND THEIVES who are in the media/associations/politics need to be ousted. I have talked to producers in Canada and they have in the Alberta area ONE packer who buys. I assume from your past writings you think that is ok.. The Canadian producers asked me about COOL and I assured them it isn’t all about producers against producers it is the packers using imported unmarked beef and captive cattle to manipulate both sides of the borders. Food safety with disease issues should be front and center. You evidently have never read the ruling by Judge Jackson on the AMI/NCBA bogus challenge. You should because they lost 3 of their 4 arguments with what they have done and how they conscrued the law to their own liking. As for the WTO they have no power overriding USA law and again do you think that the three member panel was “unbiased” when one was from Mexico and Mexico was one of the challengers? You call people like me protectionist and I am. I am willing to fully protect and serve my family, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and country as a citizen and taxpayer of the USA. I know we live in the best country in the world. I’m not sure about some of you in the media stand for if anything!

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