Country of Origin Labeling is gone. Do you know who or where your farmer is?

With a pen stroke on December 18th, the President acting under the will of Congress, which was acting under intense pressure from the governments of Mexico and Canada who were being bolstered by the World Trade Organization (W.T.O.), effectively eliminated one of the most popular steps forward in the food industry since Upton Sinclair wrote ‘The Jungle.” The story takes some twists and turns and effectively ends with some bureaucrats in Switzerland deciding that you, the American public had too much information about your food. So what happened?

USDA photo by Joan Schafer
USDA photo by Joan Schafer

Since roughly 2002 the USDA has required a label on almost all meat and fish products as well as fresh and frozen vegetables, fruits, and some nuts and root products stating the Country of Origin. What happened on December 18, 2015 was that, with the stroke of a pen, Beef and Pork products will no longer be required or allowed to carry such labeling. Period. This happened because the governments of Canada and Mexico complained that the US requiring Country of Origin Labeling (C.O.O.L.)  was a severe impediment to trade and put products coming from those respective countries at a disadvantage in the America market. Those countries petitioned the W.T.O. and were given the green light to start imposing what amounted to somewhere around $1 Billion dollars in retaliatory import tariffs. This basically forced the US Congress to acquiescence and repeal the labeling as the import tariffs would have been felt throughout the economy as US goods would have suddenly become much much more expensive in Mexico and Canada. If you’re following basic supply and demand here, this would have lead to less consumption of those goods, leading to less production of them in the US, leading to less profits and/or employment. In other words, Canada and Mexico didn’t like the fact that US consumers seemed to prefer US beef and pork, so they effectively put a gun to the Administration’s head and forced the removal of labeling all with the blessing of the W.T.O. in Geneva.

El Moo, Le Moo, or just plain Moo. Now we’ll never know.

So now you have an understanding of what happened, how a program very popular with the America public got canned. Let’s look at the realities and the possibilities that could come from this open door. The reality of Country of Origin Labeling (C.O.O.L.) was that most consumers thought it was useful and most large producers and distributors thought it was a pain in the ass. Herein lies the basic conflict of the Western World’s modern food supply. Consumers only think in household quantities of food, a couple pounds of ground beef, a few heads of cabbage, etc. Meanwhile, producers are dealing with just shy of 26 Billion pounds of beef being processed each year from the US alone. The producers and distributors make the claim that keeping track of each individual cow as it goes through processing and then gets amalgamated in the food supply is nearly impossible. In which case they are probably right, if and this is an important if, IF they are starting with cattle from various sources as currently happens in most feedlot style mainstream systems. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but that hamburger you are eating probably consists of bits of hundred of different individual cows. However, if you start with only cattle that have the same pedigree as to country, or even better, that were raised within your particular organization in a particular way, i.e. grass-fed or even better grass-fed and grass finished, then you could label your products with 100% certainty as to the Country of Origin and not have huge mess of record keeping to contend with. Remember that this legislation only impacted Pork and Beef muscle cuts and ground products, it did not change the labeling requirements for fish, seafood, produce, nuts, etc. However, it does allow an opening for those requirements to be changed, and this is where it gets scary. In many ways, pork and beef born, raised and harvested in the U.S., Mexico and Canada are very similar in terms of “food safety” procedures, types of hormones and drugs allowed to be introduced, and feed. Not that those are inherently great things, but none the less they are very similar across all three countries. So in reality when it came to pork and beef the only thing the Country of Origin Labeling (C.O.O.L.) told you was a rough idea of how many miles your food had traveled. An important metric to be sure but in reality not really an important metric of food quality when looking at North American countries.

Of course it's god. It's food from China! Country of Origin Labeling
Credit: Mike Licht,

However, many countries in the world use procedures, policies, drugs, hormones and techniques in their agriculture that the US flatly bans for any number of reasons, from actual safety to quality concerns. One area in particular is Southeast Asian seafood, especially farmed shrimp. Any right minded consumer, given the choice is going to chose wild caught US shrimp over Vietnamese farmed shrimp. W However, if Vietnam were to go the same route as Mexico and Canada, consumers wouldn’t be given the choice.  You wouldn’t know whether you were feeding your family wild shrimp from the Gulf Coast or farmed raised shrimp that was fed pig feces and came contaminated with banned pesticides and/or antibiotics. Think I’m kidding? Go ahead Google “Vietnamese farmed shrimp”, I’ll wait. So yeah, you want to know what is going on with your food. That is the point, to know. The more you know about your food, the more you can make informed choices as to what is the most important and appropriate for you and your situation and goals. As an example, I love melons, cantaloupe and watermelon particularly. In the summer I probably go through one a week. In the winter in Georgia they only exist in the grocery store and I rarely buy them. If I get a hankering while at the grocery store in the colder months, I’ll look at them. If they are from Florida I might buy one, knowing it is probably a hot house product. If they are from Honduras or South Africa I won’t. Not because I have anything against either country, just that it seems silly to me to ship out of season fruit halfway around the globe when there are other options for in-season fruits and vegetables. However, what happens if you take that label off?

Vintage drawing of young cattle

How then can you know, given the new developments, where your beef or pork comes from? Well, I’m betting you have a hair stylist right? Maybe an accountant or a lawyer, or a plumber or an electrician? Add farmer to that list. Find a farmer you trust, if you need help consult the excellent resources of, and source your meat from the local farmer. It may not have Country of Origin Labeling (C.O.O.L.) but you’ll know where it came from and if you ask the right questions, how it was raised. By going back to the producer to consumer model, you can short circuit the modern global food system and avoid the geo-political bargaining over the food you put on your family’s table. Now more than ever, when food labeling and safety requirements are being pulled from American hands and given to the whims of global political forces, now is the time to go back to the roots and befriend your local farmer and opt out of the modern food system as much as possible. As an old cattleman told me years ago, “I want beef that has the same accent as me. If it doesn’t moo with a drawl I’m not going to eat the damn thing.” Well said, well said.

Until next time, keep it real and keep it rural.


One thought on “Country of Origin Labeling is gone. Do you know who or where your farmer is?

Leave a Reply