Health

House Votes To Remove 'Country of Origin' Labels From Meat Products

August 1st 2015

By:
Aron Macarow

Soon, some of the meat that you purchase at the grocery store may no longer include information that tells you whether that meat is from America or Argentina. That's because the House recently voted to remove the mandatory country of origin labels on some meat products sold in the U.S., and now, the Senate looks to soon follow their lead.

House representatives altered the 2002 Farm Bill law, known as COOL, in a semi-partisan 300-131 vote in June, eliminating clauses that required giving consumers additional information for certain meat while keeping reporting mandates for lamb and venison intact.

Specifically, the legislation drops labels for both ground and muscle cuts of chicken, pork and beef—most of the major meat products that Americans consume every year. (In 2009, the average American consumed 110.4 lbs. of meat, more than 90 percent of which was either chicken, pork or beef.)

The repeal measure now heads to the Senate, where competing bills were introduced July 23 by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) and Sens. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). If a repeal passes the Senate, it will go to President Barack Obama’s desk, where consumer advocates already lament its likely passage.

Your burger's origins could become unknown.

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The Country of Origin Labeling Amendments Act of 2015 (HR 2393) is not as straightforward as it seems. Although Congress is frequently affected by partisan deadlock, more than half of Democrats were in favor of the Republican-sponsored legislation in the House. The leading counterpart repeal efforts in the Senate was introduced by a bipartisan team as well.

According to House sponsor Rep. Michael Conaway (R-Texas), that is because previous labeling requirements were anticipated to hurt the U.S. economy.

"Ripple effects will be felt in nearly every industry, every state and every consumer’s wallet. This is why COOL for beef, pork and chicken — nothing more than a failed government experiment — must be repealed," Conaway wrote in Roll Call.

California's Democratic Rep. Jim Costa had similarly bold praise for the House legislation, stating: "[The] passage of the COOL Amendments Act is a critical step towards ensuring that the United States is no longer burdened by a law that harms our economy and our nation’s beef, pork, and poultry producers."

It started with Canadian hog farmers.

The stated reason for the effort to repeal this consumer-friendly law is Congressional tariff anxiety caused by international trade agreements, and specifically, the ire of Canadian pig farmers seven years ago. 

As the story goes, Canada—later joined by Mexico and a long list of other countries—began objecting to the mandatory U.S. labeling standards in 2008 by claiming the mandates discriminated against these countries, appealing to the World Trade Organization (WTO) successfully to take their case in 2009. At the time, they stated that the American legislation violated international trade agreements and imposed "onerous requirements" that had a "negative impact on Canadian farmers and livestock producers."

After Canada cried foul, the WTO agreed—four separate times between 2011 and 2015—that COOL was unacceptable within current trade agreements. When the U.S. did not change its policy, Canada and Mexico eventually requested permission to impose retaliatory tariffs on American exports to the tune of $3 billion.

The WTO has yet to make a decision on whether to allow these tariffs, so they have not yet been imposed. But reaction from the House was almost immediate, with the vote to repeal the mandatory labeling occurring within days of the threat from our trading partners.

"When we start to attach tariffs to $400-million of California wine, it gets their attention," Canadian Minister of Agriculture Gerry Ritz told the Globe and the Mail, one of Canada's largest daily newspapers.

Has Congress gone whole hog too soon?

Since the WTO decision on the tariffs is still pending, some argue that the House in particular has acted too swiftly in repealing country of origin labels for meat products.

As explained by Chris Waldrop of the Consumer Federation of America:

“In fact, the WTO process is still ongoing, as the WTO must determine the level of retaliation, if any, Canada and Mexico are allowed to impose on the U.S. That process will take several more months. Even then, the three countries could agree on a resolution to the issue before a single sanction is applied.”

This is not the first time that the U.S. has been subject to punitive tariffs from other countries in response to American law. In 2009, Mexico imposed $2.4 billion worth of tariffs against the U.S. in a border dispute over delivery trucks. And China has sought the go-ahead for tariffs on U.S. auto products and chickens in response to our tariffs on their tires.

Sometimes these tariffs do have a negative impact on U.S. consumers, making items more expensive than they were in the past. The same can be said for tariffs meant to protect the U.S. job market, which can also have negative outcomes. For example, some believe our 2009 tariff on incoming Chinese tires contributed to domestic tire prices rising 29 percent. Similarly, there are concerns that a Canadian or Mexican tariff on our exports will hit Michigan and Ohio agriculture hard if Congress does not act soon. Canada's proposed tariff has the potential to cost the state an estimated $684 million according to some studies, since 58 percent of all of Michigan's exports currently go to Canada.

Other countries require meat origin labels.

America is not the only country to require country of origin labels on meat.

As of April 1, no package of unprocessed meat can be sold legally in Europe if it lacks a label stating clearly where the animal was raised and slaughtered. This law covers meat such as sheep, goats, pigs and poultry, and it is an expansion of almost a decade of legislation requiring country of origin labels for beef sold in the European Union. Australia, and New Zealand have labeling requirements

Most notably, Canada has laws allowing for country of origin labeling, although their legislation makes it voluntary.

What's causing the proposed label changes?

Despite that many of our trade partners maintain similar meat origin labels, House and Senate COOL repeals also look to remove mandatory labels from items that are unrelated to the tariffs. Chicken was not part of the dispute, and ground meat labels were ruled trade legal by the WTO.

ATTN: sat down with Nancy Neiman Auerbach, Professor of International Political Economy at Scripps College, to find out if arrangements with Canada and Mexico are impacting domestic food policy.

"More people need to be aware that free trade is not a neutral, apolitical, good for business kind of thing," said Neiman Auerbach. "It involves a subverting of the democratic process."

As she explains, free trade agreements are actually thousands of pages of very specific kind of trade arrangements "with tons of loophole for businesses."

There could be more to the story, according to Neiman Auerbach.

"These agreements make it easier for industry to push forward on making profit at the expense of consumer safety. There are all kinds of hidden agendas there. Free trade gets constructed as a win-win-win. [...] I put 'free trade' in quotes usually. We setup the conversation as that you're either for free trade or against it. In fact, these agreements are very specific in allowing businesses to do all kinds of things, usually not in the interest of consumers. It usually doesn't happen this obviously that there's a consumer law that's publicly debated and changed as a result of a free trade dispute, but I think this [repeal effort] is par for the course."

Rather than a respond to tariff threats, Neiman Auerbach believes the economic damage that Republicans and Democrats tout is "a major excuse" used as a shield to roll back consumer protections in favor of big business.

Canada and Mexico, however, disagree.

Does COOL harm Canadian and Mexican farmers?

Yes and no.

The Canadian Cattlemen's Association, which has been involved in the dispute since the beginning, believes that it does. The organization primarily cites recordkeeping as an increased burden imposed on Canadian farmers—because under COOL legislation, U.S.-bound cattle and other tracked livestock need to be segregated from livestock that will be sold in other markets. This allows producers to maintain paper trails on the animals that proves where they originated, were raised and slaughtered. According to the group and the Canadian government, this also leads to increased cost for producers.

Per CCA president Dave Solverson: "[W]e understand that there will be some form of labeling when this is all done, but we want to make sure that it is truly voluntary and that there is no chance for segregation. The whole matter of the WTO case was on the fact that the animals were segregated before processing."

The WTO agreed with Canada, Mexico and other countries challenging COOL, stating that the origin label law does lead to an increased burden for producers because of the mandates around livestock segregation and tracking.

However, Canada also said that COOL led to fewer sales of out-of-country meat in the U.S. because of a preference for domestic meat, leading to "increased discrimination." Canadian government officials and industry leaders claim nearly $1.1 billion in revenue losses from COOL in 2009 alone.

Do we care if our meat comes from the U.S.?

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) studies would suggest that we do not. The USDA reported in May that COOL regulations have had little impact on U.S. consumer spending habits. The 198-page USDA study found "little evidence" that Americans had altered their purchasing decisions in response to the labels, despite having "substantial interest" in our right to know where our food come from.

Another USDA document produced similar findings, revealing that if consumers were willing to pay extra for U.S.-raised meat, the cost of labeling would be outweighed by the benefit in revenue. The lack of U.S.-specific origin labels, argues study author Fred Kuchler, suggests that this bias among U.S. consumers may not exist:

"Why is it that grocery items are not ablaze with country-of-origin labels? The people who are best informed, and who have the greatest incentive to be informed about the costs and benefits of labeling, are grocers, meatpackers, and farmers. Their voluntary use of labels identifying U.S. products is, at most, rare. [...] If country of origin does not influence demand, there is no incentive to label country of origin. That is, domestic beef and lamb producers may not be able to acquire a competitive advantage over importers by alerting consumers to country of origin. Grocers or meatpackers that did provide country-of-origin labels would incur labeling costs but receive no benefit."

Since many U.S. meat products are banned for sale internationally, some also argue that American meat is not any safer than meat from abroad, eliminating the importance of knowing our meat's origin. (China has banned U.S. beef since 2003, and many chemicals, or growth hormones, that are approved for use in American meat production and processing that are barred in other countries.) But this reasoning has holes.

There's still time for your voice to be heard.

Disputes that impact consumers such as this one have been settled by the WTO in different ways in the past. The Senate is exploring options, including a voluntary "Product of the USA" labeling system for domestic meat that would replace current mandatory country of origin labels. Proposed by Sens. Stabenow and Hoeven, the recent bill is not as strong as our current consumer protections, but it does mirror Canada's own voluntary meat labeling laws, making it harder for our neighbor to continue to object. 

A growing number of organizations have asked Congress to reject repealing COOL, and in contrast, many large businesses have highlighted their interest in ending the requirements. Consumer advocacy groups argue that country of origin labels can also protect consumers during potential food-borne illness outbreaks, according to ConsumerReports.org.

You can learn more about the growing movement to reject the repeal of COOL and contact your senator

If you are not registered yet, you can do so at OurTime.org.