I like knowing what I am eating. That means knowing where it came from. For example, I like to know if my hamburger contains meat that originated in a country which might have different standards for maintaining the food hygiene and security integrity I take for granted in the United States.
In December, 2015, the Country Of Origin Labeling law or COOL was repealed by Congress. The law had been in place since 2002 when there was concern about the threat of mad cow disease from imported cattle. This now means that the label on the package of meat you consume does not have to show the country of origin. The reasons behind the legislators’ action were the potential of retaliatory tariffs by Canada and Mexico. Some felt that the law ran the risk of those sanctions without properly safeguarding consumers. Some argued that the swiftness of the repeal did not allow enough time for dialog, and consideration. Several folks were happy about that, most notably the North American Meat Institute, a non-profit, industry trade association representing U.S. packers and processors of beef, pork, lamb and turkey.
So why did this happen? Well, the World Trade Organization, a multinational, member-driven organization created to facilitate trade between nations had indicated it would support sanctions by the countries of Mexico and Canada against the United States. Their complaint lay with the issue that imported animals had to be segregated from American stock and this increased the amount of money they had to spend on separate feeding etc., thus reducing profit.
The repeal of the COOL law has been criticized by several groups, including the National Farmers Union (NFU) that has supported COOL since 1984, according to Roger Johnson, president at NFU. Johnson says that Congress “gave in to demands to completely remove most aspects of COOL for meat that provided meaningful information to the public.”
Thomas Gremillion, director of food policy at the Consumer Federation of America, says that the repeal could set a “terrible precedent. COOL laws apply to other foods—from fish and shellfish to fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables and many nuts. This legislation sends the message that Congress will repeal other laws too if another WTO panel orders it to do so.”
But what does this mean for the consumer? Well, it means you won’t have as much information about the source country of your food. Similarly, it means you and I will have to take on more responsibility and exercise more individual effort to know where what goes on our plate comes from. If you feel strongly that you want and need this sort of information, contact your legislative representative and encourage them to propose thoughtful measures to illustrate resource origin. Alternatively and additionally, you might look into local food sourcing and co-ops.
For example, a friend of mine recently utilized a neighborhood association meeting to organize a collective buy with a local rancher. They subsidized a cow- I know the punchlines just fly from the brain- and then received a portion of the meat. They were informed of the source, the processing and the methodology resulting in their beef.
It might seem like a bit of work, but they were pretty happy with the result.
My guess is that with the next protein-associated illness that affects the country we will see emotionally-driven, reactionary legislation. It might make more sense to consider that sort of thing without the pressure of public panic?
In the meantime, I will be humming that time honored tune, “Beans, beans, the magical fruit…”