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New labeling rules could give consumers more info about their meat

Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media

A new labeling rule that went into full effect Saturday requires meatpackers and retailers to provide consumers with more information about where their meat comes from.

The country-of-origin labeling mandate (COOL) forces retailers and meatpackers to list where the livestock from which that meat came was born, raised and slaughtered. It applies to certain cuts of beef, veal, chicken, pork, lamb and goat sold in the supermarket. Processed, deli and ground meats are exempt from the new rules.

Previously, labels on most packages of meat only had to list the countries that meat passed through. Now there will be more details. For example, a steak may have a label that states that the animal was born in Canada, raised in the U.S. and slaughtered in the U.S.

“The idea of COOL is to have greater delineation of the steps in the process, helping the consumer understand that it wasn’t necessarily grown all the way up to slaughter in another country and then brought here for slaughter,” said Bryon Wiegand, who teaches in the Meat Science department at the University of Missouri.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued the new labeling rules on May 23 and gave meatpackers six months to comply. The rules go in to full effect November 23. If the new mandate stays on the books, most of the meat for sale in the supermarket will bear similar country-of-origin labels.

“The vast majority of red meats and processed meats that we’re going to see in a grocery store will be from the United States,” Wiegand said.

Credit Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media
About 94 percent of our meat comes from livestock that was born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S.

  About six percent of our meat comes from livestock that has spent some part of its life abroad, according to Ron Plain, an agricultural economist at University of Missouri. Some 14 percent of our beef, 8 percent of our pork and less than 1 percent of our poultry are from animals that were born, raised or slaughtered outside the U.S. Most of the beef and pork we import comes from Canada and Mexico. About half of our lamb and mutton is imported to the U.S. from New Zealand and Australia.

The Department of Agriculture calls its new country-of-origin labeling mandate a “consumer information program,” not a food safety issue. The USDA says all of our meat, whether processed here or abroad, goes through food safety checks that are equivalent, but not identical, to ours in the U.S. Still, Chandler Goule of the National Farmers Union, which generally represents smaller farmers and ranchers and supports COOL, says health concerns are one reason some consumers want to know more about their steak.

“My local producers are proud of the products they produce,” Goule said. “They want to be able to tell the consumer that this product is from the U.S. -- it was raised here locally. So the consumer has information to make an informed decision when they’re in the grocery store.”

But the American Meat Institute (AMI), a national trade group representing meat processors and packers, wants Congress to repeal COOL in the next Farm Bill.

“The bottom line is it’s going to make the price of meat go up,” said Mark Dopp, general counsel for AMI.

The American Meat Institute estimates the new labeling rules will cost the industry between $300 and $500 million to implement, though the USDA puts the figure at around $120 million. Some of that cost may get passed onto consumers. Companies will have to segregate animals and their meat all along the supply chain from birth to the packinghouse. They’ll have to keep track of details about each animal and they’ll have a lot of new labels to print. AMI has even appealed a federal court decision requiring the industry to comply. That case will be heard in January.

“It’s going to add cost to the system,” Dopp said. “The price of meat will go up at a time when the price of meat is already at record highs because of the limited supply, given the small herd, etc. etc. So all we’re doing is throwing some additional costs into the system for an issue or information that we believe consumers don’t really care about.”

But the non-profit advocacy group Consumer Federation of America (CFA) thinks consumers do care about the path their meat took before it got to the grocery store.

“Earlier this year, CFA did a poll that showed that 90 percent of Americans believe that they have a right to know the country-of-origin of fresh meat they purchase…” said Chris Waldrop,  director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America. “Consumers like this information and they really do want to know where their food comes from. And this COOL label provides them that info when they’re in the supermarket.”

While industry groups and consumer advocates duke it out in the capitol, consumers remain sort of in the dark. That’s because even if the USDA’s new rules stay on the books, it’s still impossible to know where much of our meat comes from. The new mandate doesn’t cover anything that has been processed or seasoned, like ground beef or bacon.

Outside the Aldi supermarket in Columbia, Mo., Rod Lake examined a big ham he had just purchased, which he hoped was born, raised and slaughtered in the US. But since the ham had been previously cooked, and therefore is exempt from country-of-origin labeling rules, Lake can’t be sure.

“I can’t answer you on this,” he said. “I don’t know. I don’t see it real readily on there.”

The Department of Agriculture says going forward it will be on the lookout for new country-of-origin labels on meat in grocery stores and will follow up with retailers if they are not complying with the new rule.

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