Wagu Cows at Skagit River Ranch
By Dave Bernard
New labels that have begun appearing on packaged meats stating where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered, the result of 2013 federal legislation involving “country of origin labeling,” took one step closer to permanency when a federal appeals court recently upheld the new rules.
In a blow to some of the nation’s largest meat packers, which had asserted the new labels would yield minimal benefit to consumers while forcing costly changes in production practices, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia determined that consumers’ right to know the country of origin of their foods, and the government’s interest in protecting public health outweighed the “minimal” intrusion on meatpacker practices. The American Meat Institute, which represents the country’s largest packers and was joined in the appeal by other meat industry groups, has not yet decided whether it will appeal to the Supreme Court.
The new law, which fits with a growing desire for awareness on the part of consumers over what they eat, could favor producers and retailers of 100 percent American-born, raised and slaughtered meat products. Consumers wary of foreign meats can now select “purely” American beef, pork and other products. With the USDA limited in its capacity to test imported foods – only about 2-3 percent of the 10 million or so international food products on U.S. retail shelves have undergone testing – Americans will now be able to readily choose more rigorously tested domestic meat products.
“Consumers today want more information, not less, about the products they are buying and feeding their families,” said Colin O’Neil, Director of Government Affairs at the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C. “And this ruling is an import victory for those U.S. consumers.” In a survey conducted by the Consumer Federation of America, 90 percent of respondents favored requiring food sellers to indicate the country of origin of fresh meat products on the label.
While some large meatpackers are opposed to the new labeling requirements due to the expense involved in complying (for example, live animals imported from Canada, Mexico and other countries will need to be kept segregated from U.S.-born animals), many groups involved in the domestic beef and pork industry actually support the legislation.
“We view country of origin labeling as a marketing tool,” said Dale Moore, Executive Director of Public Policy for the American Farm Bureau. “Our grassroots members are confident that if consumers have a choice, they will select the American product.” Moore and others in the industry view country of origin labeling as similar in nature to designations such as Angus Beef, in which producers meeting certain criteria can receive a premium price for a much-desired product.
Another such desirous label is ‘organic,’ and some organic ranchers are equally pleased with the new labels. “We’re happy to see it. It should be on all our foods,” said George Vojkovich, Owner of Skagit River Ranch in northwest Washington state. Skagit River Ranch is an organic farm that raises cattle, pigs and poultry. “Labeling is so important, and it’s becoming more important when we see issues [instances of food contamination] abroad. People are trying to eat healthier food, and they’re aware of quality issues.”
As consumers are given more information about the foods they buy, and country of origin labeling rules have evolved, some believe that a momentum continues to build that is felt on a broader scale, over and above a consumer’s choice on which package of tenderloin to buy.
“When people find out about this, they want to know more,” said O’Neil of the expanded information on meat labels. As consumers ask more questions and take more interest in what goes into the foods on their dinner table, gourmet retailers may see new opportunities to introduce shoppers to higher-quality products across all food categories.