Food

Would You Buy Meat If You Didn't Know Where It Came from, or How It Was Raised?

Being a member of the World Trade Organization definitely has some anti-perks.

A recent move by the World Trade Organization threatens to put more mystery in the meat we eat, while casting doubt on our national sovereignty. The WTO ruled on May 18 that American meat labels violate Canadian and Mexican free trade rights. The labels were created in accordance with U.S. Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) laws, and show where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered. The labels are directed at American consumers, and were implemented through the American political process. But they put Mexican and Canadian livestock producers at an unfair disadvantage, the WTO ruled. So they must go.

The GOP-led House Agriculture Committee acted quickly in response to the decision. The very next day, a bill to repeal COOL laws for meat was proposed. A day later the committee passed it, 38-6.

National Farmers Union president Robert Johnson was on Capital Hill following the WTO’s decision, meeting with legislators and urging them to stay COOL, as it were. Johnson’s team visited 150 offices, he told me by phone. Their message was simple: “do nothing for these next several months while this process plays out.”

The House Agriculture Committee is jumping the gun, he explained, but the Senate “will not be in any hurry to do anything.”

There are some negotiations ahead, he said, which is how the WTO negotiation process works. “Normally in the WTO, before any action is authorized, is the time when countries are encouraged to negotiate. And that is precisely what should happen.”

In a joint statement, Canadian and Mexican representatives praised the ruling, calling COOL “damaging to North America’s supply chain and harmful to producers and processors in all three countries.”  

The Canadian government has been tossing around the $1 billion figure for the damages its meat industry has suffered under COOL. The National Cattleman’s Beef Association (NCBA) claims the implementation costs of COOL to U.S. producers to be “in excess of $1 billion for beef alone.”

Johnson chuckled when I brought up these numbers. “It’s laughable,” he said. “Nobody really believes that.”

The costs presumably come from keeping foreign-born animals separate from their U.S.-born counterparts, which industry claims is a record-keeping nightmare. 

“The livestock industry is already segregated and hyper organized,” Johnson said. When you buy a steer, “you get a printout for every animal, carcass by carcass,” showing its weight, level of marbling, and other characteristics. To implement COOL record keeping, Johnson suggested, involves little more than adding extra lines of code to the computerized record-keeping systems already in place.

Auburn professor Robert Taylor recently published a study comparing the pre- and post-COOL marketplaces. He told me in an email that WTO based its decision on data that is not only crappy, but secret.

“The WTO relied on analyses of proprietary Canadian cattle data analyzed by consultants to the Canadian Cattlemens Association and the Canadian government. As far as I know, WTO has never considered the packers' own data used for my report, and no independent economists can access the Canadian data used as a basis for previous appeals.”

Roberts said his study made use of the meatpackers' mandatory price-reporting data, which told a different story, in which COOL has negligible impact on the Mexican and Canadian meat industries. It’s an argument that will get a fair hearing if WTO’s process is allowed to continue, Johnson says.

The Canadians and Mexicans will seek retaliation based upon this ruling in the form of a tariff, at which point the United States will request arbitration, Johnson said. Canada and Mexico will be authorized to prove economic damages before they can retaliate. And this is where their job becomes a lot harder, as the damages will have to be proven in public.  

But if COOL isn’t so bad for business, I asked Johnson, why are so many companies against it?

It’s the international meat packers, he said, whose representatives sit on the boards of the National Cattleman’s Beef Association and its Canadian and Mexican counterparts, and who work Capitol Hill with well-armed lobbyists. Johnson says the global meat conglomerates don’t like COOL because it eliminates a practice among meat packers that was as convenient as it was profitable: passing off foreign meat as American, with the USDA’s unwitting assistance. “Meat imports are required to be inspected by USDA. Consumers see a USDA-beef stamp, and they think it’s American made.” 

Americans want to eat American-grown meat, and this is why there is so much popular support for COOL among consumers, and also among many non-NCBA affiliated producers as well. “Consumers want to know what’s in their food, and producers would like to tell them,” Johnson says. But the multinationals, “do not want to label country of origin so they can go back to pretending that any product was U.S product.”

Assuming the meatpackers fail to force a sovereign nation to change its laws, the fact that a global trade agreement could conceivably do so casts an unflattering shadow on the already unpopular Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).

“This does make it more difficult for Congress to pass fast track,” Johnson offered. “One of the arguments that’s being made is that there is nothing in the TPP that would require us to change our laws. Now we have a bunch of people in the House that are stampeding to change a law. It undercuts an argument made by fast track supporters that we’ll be able to keep our own laws.”

And this is precisely why many of the same groups that oppose COOL are also in support of TPP. They want the meat to flow like capital, anonymously, across borders and around the world, to wherever it can return the most on its value. If you’re a consumer looking to weigh the myriad impacts of meat eating—on your health, on the environment, on animal welfare and human rights—or if you just don’t want to eat meat from China, your agenda is at odds with the priorities behind free-trade agreements like the TPP.

How the World Trade Organization finally resolves the dispute over COOL will tell an important story about the power of Big Meat to trump our laws and control what we know about what we eat.

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Ari LeVaux writes a syndicated weekly food column, Flash in the Pan.