From the desk of Captain Obvious, this memo just in: Despite the enormous cost and the years of legal wrangling, consumers don’t know and don’t care about country-of-origin labeling.
When they pick up a package of meat from the grocery store, do you think most consumers notice the label that indicates where the meat originated? If so, do you think it affects their purchasing?
The short answer to both questions is: No.
According to new research, most shoppers have no idea the country-of-origin label even exists, and an even greater percentage don’t care.
Of course, just a few months ago in October 2014, the World Trade Organization ruled in favor of Canada and Mexico, finding that the country-of-origin labels approved by USDA were not compliant with the organization’s trading rules and that the result was damaging to producers, meatpackers and importers elsewhere in North America.
A U.S. appeal to WTO is pending, with a decision expected sometime early this year.
Despite all the hoopla and the hysteria surrounding COOL — not to mention the absolute failure of the initiative to tilt the playing field in favor of U.S. producers — research from Kansas State University, in collaboration with Oklahoma State University, discovered that most consumers aren’t willing to pay anything extra for the label.
“Less than one-third of the participants surveyed know that it is a law to label where the meat originates,” Glynn Tonsor, an associate professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University, stated in a news release from the university. “Effectively, producers lose and consumers lose because we have not observed an aggregate demand increase in response to that origin information.”
Translation: Sticking COOL labels on products in the meat case does little to boost sales, and even less to drive consumer preference for meat labeled “Made in USA.”
Unless it’s cheaper, fresher and more attractively packaged, that is.
The country-of-origin labels were initially mandated in 2009, ostensibly so that shoppers would have more information about the origin of the meat they were deciding to purchase. In 2013, USDA was forced to revise labels to add more specifics — where the animal was born, where it was raised and where it was slaughtered.
Prof. Tonsor said he surveyed consumers in 2009 and again in 2013 and found the same results: The majority of shoppers aren’t interested in that information.
In a related story, a new survey has now revealed that the color-coded speedometers in motor vehicles appear to have little impact on drivers violating the speed limit.
“Time and time again, we find that food safety, price, freshness and taste tend to be attributes, regardless of the meat product we’re talking about, that rank highly in importance and drive purchasing decisions,” Tonsor said. “Social issues like origin, environmental impact and sustainability matter to consumers, but do not drive purchasing decisions.”
About the only constituencies that love COOL are labeling suppliers and lawyers.
Lawyers always rake it in when regulations run amuck.
Truthfully, surveys like this one from KSU ought to convince both the industry and the regulators that COOL was, and is, a gigantic waste of time and money, a futile exercise in delusional thinking and rampant hubris.
Every testimonial from the people originally pushing for COOL — and I attended a bunch of USDA “listening sessions” on the subject back in 2003 — was rife with predictions of a windfall for the American cattle industry. And virtually all of the rebuttal testimony suggested that consumers weren’t going to start salivating just because somebody slapped a Stars and Stripes sticker on a tray of ground beef.
The evidence is now in, and the jury’s no longer out.
COOL was, and is, a mistake of the first order, Exhibit A on the Law of Unintended Consequences.
Too bad the industry can’t just ignore it the way their customers do.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.