The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

December 20, 2013

Other Views: Labels of limited value

— Careful consideration is given to what goes on a burger — cheese, ketchup, lettuce, tomato or more exotic choices. More consumers, however, are turning their attention to what goes into the burger, asking questions about the meat that makes up one of America’s signature dishes.

One well-meaning attempt to label meat products has deteriorated to 10 years of bureaucracy at its finest. Country of Origin Labeling — nicknamed COOL — began as legislation in the 2002 Farm Bill. The regulation was designed to inform consumers about where the meat they purchased came from. Many believe buyers will willingly choose U.S. beef over foreign options.

Portions of the bill went into effect in November, requiring muscle cuts of beef, pork and lamb to state where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered. The federal rule will prove much more complicated than slapping on a “Made in the USA” sticker. Meatpackers say tracking the travels of each animal that enters their plants, then ensuring the required labeling, will be costly: The USDA estimates it will cost between $50 million and $100 million.

In St. Joseph, Triumph Foods slaughters 5.5 million hogs each year and the paperwork required is tremendous. The United States, meanwhile, imports many head of cattle and hogs from Canada and Mexico.

Good trade relationships with our neighbors have helped boost our local economy. However, some packers are already cutting back imports and trade relations have suffered under the suggestion that COOL will further anger our foreign nation trading partners. Mexico and Canada already have filed petitions with the World Trade Organization.

For most consumers, the deciding factor on meat purchases is price, not pedigree. The labels may be informative, but we’re not convinced the data are worth the cost to livestock producers, packers and retailers. And everyone should be concerned about the potential for trade wars that would limit our access to foreign markets.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association argues that the market, not regulation, should drive the labeling. Cargill, for instance, recently announced it will note when a beef product contains “finely textured beef,” the subject of last year’s meat controversy. This type of voluntary labeling can give consumers the information some want without piling onto the heap of federal regulation.

COOL can be expected to go back for more rounds of bureaucracy and bickering. A better option would be to direct regulation spending to issues that directly affect food safety — which the USDA agrees this effort does not address.

— St. Joseph News-Press

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