An attachment to the last-minute spending proposal going before Congress this week would end a six-year trade dispute between the U.S. and Canada. If it’s passed, as seems likely, the omnibus budget bill would repeal a law called COOL that requires “country-of-origin labels” on meat.
The labels are all over the meat aisle of grocery stores in the U.S. on packages of uncooked beef, pork and poultry. They declare where animals were born, raised and slaughtered.
Country-of-origin labels are seen by many in the beef industry, in particular, as a way to promote American beef the way car companies or appliance manufacturers might market themselves as “Made in the USA.”
And there is more foreign competition in the beef industry. That’s something Mike Briggs has certainly noticed. He runs a feedlot near the small town of Seward, Neb. Some 20,000 calves come through his pens each year to suck up corn and pack on pounds.
Normally, Briggs would say his competition comes from feedlots in Kansas or Texas. But these days, he says, meat packers import lean beef from Brazil and Canada to mix with fat trimmings from the U.S.
“More meat into the country is more meat into the country, and that’s that much less [meat] they buy from us,” Briggs said.
Canadian and Mexican cattle producers benefit from the blurring borders of the beef industry, but they say COOL makes it more difficult to sell meat in America. Konstantinos Giannakas, an agricultural economist at the University of Nebraska, says that’s why Canada went to the World Trade Organization to argue that the origin labels are discriminatory.
“Does it discriminate? Yes,” said Giannakas, who has studied how consumers respond to food labels. “But we discriminate because we choose a quality that fits our interests, and I cannot see how this is unethical or unfair or illegal.”
The WTO disagreed, and last week it said Canada and Mexico can charge American businesses $1 billion in tariffs.
Many in Congress say they’re tired of fighting with America’s top trading partner. Sen. Pat Robert, R-Kan., lobbied to repeal COOL on the Senate floor in July after the U.S. lost its final appeal at the WTO.
“It doesn’t matter if you support COOL or if you oppose COOL,” Roberts said. “You cannot ignore the fact that retaliation is imminent and that we must avoid it.”
Retaliation is not just aimed at beef. Canada could levy tariffs against a laundry list of products — including furniture, wine and frozen orange juice. Those industries won’t stand up for beef, and that puts more pressure on Congress.
Doing away with the labels doesn’t mean imported meat will be any less safe. All meat coming into the country is subject to inspection by the USDA. But food advocacy groups argue that knowing the country of origin is like seeing a list of ingredients or nutrition facts. They say the repeal of COOL makes it harder for consumers to make informed decisions.
“The COOL rider demonstrates that these international trade deals can and do overturn U.S. laws and should prompt Congress to reconsider any support for the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership,” Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch, said in a statement.
The reaction in the beef industry is divided. Cattlemen like Jim Dinklage of Nebraska want to keep the labeling. He says without it, global meat companies like Brazil-based JBS find it easier to cut American ranchers out of the loop.
“They’re importing meat from Brazil, and they’re going to ship it out of Brazil and bring it into this country,” Dinklage said. “(Beef) would go the same way as the textile industry.”
But Mike Briggs, who runs that big feedlot, doesn’t think labels are actually helping. Packers spend millions to keep animals separate for labeling, but he says not enough shoppers are buying meat based on labeling to make it pay.
“And if [the packer is] not going to get paid for it, we’re not going to get paid for it. And all that financial pressure always slides down and ends up in the feedyard’s lap or the rancher’s lap,” Briggs says.
Some Senate Democrats are now pushing for voluntary country-of-origin labels. But America’s neighbors say they will only stop the tariffs if labels on meat are repealed.