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.
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.