Canada and Mexico are up in arms over new beef labeling rules proposed by the USDA,
but some U.S. public health advocates say the rules will help keep consumers safe.
Krystal Gabert, Editor
The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) innocuously calls the department’s new
country-of-origin labeling (COOL) law one that “requires retailers, such as full-line grocery
stores, supermarkets, and club warehouse stores, notify their customers with information
regarding the source of certain foods,” but the law is sparking
heated response in the U.S. meat processing industry and among
countries across the globe.
The law would impact meat processors and produce packers
and would ostensibly provide more information to consumers about
where their products are coming from. The agency says the products
impacted by the new law include labeling requirements for:
Wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish
Fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables
Peanuts, pecans and macadamia nuts
While labeling for crops like fruits and vegetables will likely be relatively straight forward, some
domestic meat processors are saying that the rule will create a documentation headache in the meat
In a marketplace that is becoming increasingly international, cattle, for instance, can be born,
raised and finished in different geographic locations before finally being transported to a slaughterhouse. When meat is sent to a packing house, a lot could contain meat from animals with differing
lifecycle histories, and so the list of origin countries on a finished lot of ground beef could be quite
complicated — both to document and to disclose.
In the meantime, both Canada and Mexico have submitted complaints to the World Trade
Organization that the COOL rules give preferential treatment to U.S. producers, which, they say,
violates trade agreements among the three countries. Mexico has even threatened to suspend preferential trade tariffs with the U.S.
These rules come amid a recent push for more industry transparency aimed at giving consumers more information as they make purchasing decisions. For example, the USDA’s Food Safety
Inspection Service in June proposed new rules that would require meat processors to label
mechanically tenderized meat and provide more thorough cooking instructions for such products.
Concerns about mechanically tenderized meat have come amid an unusually high number of
foodborne illness cases linked to such products. Under Secretary Elisabeth Hagen said in a release,
“This proposed rule would enhance food safety by providing clear labeling of mechanically-tender-
ized beef products and outlining new cooking instructions so that consumers and restaurants can
And though none have yet passed, bills mandating the labeling of products containing geneti-
cally modified organisms (GMOs) continue to crop up in state legislatures across the country, to the
objection of nearly all food industry trade groups and lobbying organizations.
Regulation mandating transparency and providing consumers with more information will continue. But the legislation is only as good as consumers’ ability to understand the information they’re
given. Is U.S.-raised beef really safer than Canadian beef? Should consumers avoid mechanically
tenderized meat? What impact do GMOs really have on the environment? On health?
The industry must work with regulators to ensure that new transparency rules are workable
within the industry, but they must also work to answer the questions that will arise when consumers begin asking the questions that this new information will invariably invite. ◆
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