Where does your ground beef come from? A new ruling might erase that information from meat packages

Cleveland Plain Dealer
10/23/2014
By Debbi Snook

Under a proposed rule, supermarkets will not have to label meats with where the animal was grown.

This story was amended to show that origin labels for ground beef labels would not be immediately affected by the proposed ruling, just whole muscle cuts of meat.

CLEVELAND, Ohio — That package of beef at the grocery store — is it from cattle grown here, in Mexico, Canada, Argentina?

We’ve had no trouble answering that question since 2009, when country-of-origin labeling became a law. Each package of steaks, ribs and other cuts of meat must tell where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered. Ground meats must show at least a country of origin. The print is usually small but it’s there, and many consumers find it important.

But a ruling Monday by the World Trade Organization could remove some of that information from labels. Acting on an appeal from Canada and Mexico, the WTO has determined that such labels are unfair to other countries and their right to free trade.

WTO said the labeling requirement forced meat packers to segregate and keep detailed records on imported livestock, giving them the incentive to favor U.S. livestock. It said the change would be a victory for ranchers who do business with Mexico and for meat packers, who said the labels imposed a paperwork burden.

Also, some in the beef industry say that keeping the labels would cause Mexico and Canada to raise tariffs on U.S. food sent to those countries.

Reaction to the proposed ruling was swift from consumer groups who want the rules to remain. One group said industries use global trade rules to get around laws they don’t like.

“Today’s decision flies in the face of the overwhelming numbers of U.S. consumers who want more information about the origin of their food,” Chris Waldrop, a policy director at the Washington, D.C.-based Consumer Federation of America, said in a press release.

Waldrop cited a 2013 poll by his group that found 90 percent or more of Americans favoring origin labeling for fresh meat.

In Ohio, Renee Hunt, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association, an organic advocacy group, said WTO is on a race to the bottom on the issue.

“It comes at the expense of consumers and American livestock farmers,” she said in an email statement. “Consumers want to have the choice of where their meat comes from, but, instead, Big Ag’s interests are protected.”

Jim Tucker, president of the Ohio Meat Packers Association and owner of Marshallville Meats, a processor and distributor of Ohio-grown meats, said he understands the nightmare of paperwork involved in keeping track of meat origins. He doesn’t carry imported meat in part because of that requirement.

At the same time, he thinks labeling is important.

“I think it’s a benefit to everyone to know where this stuff is coming from,” he said by phone from his Wayne County business.

WTO’s ruling has not yet been finalized, and there are at least two views of what might happen next.

Elizabeth Harsh, president of the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association, an organization of beef ranchers in the state, thinks origin labeling is on its way out.

“While COOL might have looked good on the surface, it’s been kind of a failed experiment,” she said by phone. “We kind of need Congress to fix it.”

If not, an economic battle with Canada and Mexico could ensue, she said, affecting the profitability of ranchers and possibly other food producers here.

“Unfortunately, this is the third time the WTO ruled against labeling, and it just brings us one stop closer to retaliation.”

Harsh echoed the statement made by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association president Bob McCan, of Victoria, Texas that origin labeling is a short-sighted effort “that will soon cost not only the beef industry, but the entire U.S. economy, with no corresponding benefit to consumers or producers.”

There is no fix to the rules, he added.

While the consumer federation says the public overwhelmingly wants to know where their meat comes from, Harsh pointed to a 2012 University of Kansas study that showed labeling did not change consumer purchasing habits, and that most shoppers interviewed in person for the study said they don’t look for origin labels on fresh beef and pork products.

Chase Adams, a spokesman for the cattlemen in Washington, D.C., acknowledged that surveys have shown consumer interest in the labeling, “but who’s going to say they want less information?”

The consumer federation said the U.S. can still appeal the ruling against labels before it becomes final. If the U.S. loses the appeal, the WTO could determine the extent of any trade sanctions the U.S. would have to bear.

“Basic information about the origin of our food should not be considered a barrier to trade,” said the federation’s Waldrop. “CFA strongly urges the Obama administration to appeal the WTO decision and continue to fight for U.S. consumers’ right to know the origin of their food.”