Distinguishing imported from domestic meat is not new. The Tariff Act of 1930 requires labels on imported meat to indicate to the “ultimate purchaser” its country of origin. This explains why imported canned meat and imported ready-to-eat meat has been labeled for as long as most of us can remember.
[ by Bill Bullard | July 18, 2015 | Rapid City Journal ]
However, volumes of imported meat remained unlabeled because the U.S. interpreted “ultimate purchaser” to be the last purchaser of the meat product in the form in which it was imported. Big meatpackers began circumventing labeling requirements by cutting, blending, grinding or repackaging imported meat.
The United States accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) brought with it a similarly lax origin standard. Under WTO rules, the country of origin is where the meat product was last substantially transformed. Thus, meat from a Canadian steer slaughtered in the U.S. would bear a USA label when exported to Japan.
Parents whose children received ground beef in school lunches were dissatisfied with such lax origin standards. The U.S. responded by prohibiting imported beef or beef from cattle imported for immediate slaughter from federal procurement programs. As a result, school lunch beef must be derived from animals that were at least raised and slaughtered in the U.S.
By 2002, Americans decided the WTO’s origin definition was too weak; the USDA’s policy of omitting origin information on altered or repackaged meat was unacceptable; and the somewhat better origin standard used for school lunches was still intellectually dishonest.
That’s why Congress passed the mandatory country of origin labeling law, or COOL. Foreign countries and big meatpackers opposed it. But Americans committed to defending their right to know where their food is produced persevered. What emerged was a uniquely American mandatory COOL law that reserved the USA label only for meat from animals born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S.
The COOL law was initially implemented as a voluntary program that lasted from 2002 until late 2008. Only a negligible volume of meat was ever labeled during the voluntary program.
Voluntary COOL failed because big meatpackers don’t want to disclose the origins of meat. In 2013, they sued the USDA claiming that COOL violated their First Amendment free speech rights by forcing them to provide COOL labels against their will. Our federal courts repeatedly rejected their claims.
Contrary to our court system rulings, the WTO ruled that providing accurate labels to U.S. consumers violates U.S. obligations to the WTO.
More and more in Congress believe the U.S. must become subservient to a higher authority. That higher authority is the WTO. The certain amount of national sovereignty they willingly cede to this international tribunal is justified, they say, because the U.S. must go along to get along.
Global governance admirers are now scrambling to change our COOL law even before the WTO dispute resolution process is completed. Alarmingly, 300 members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted to repeal COOL even before the U.S. had a chance to initiate arbitration, the final phase of the WTO’s dispute resolution process. This is an unprecedented surrender of U.S. sovereignty.
Not to be outdone, members of the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee are in heated competition to either repeal COOL or convert it to a voluntary program.
It’s a sad commentary that without so much as a public quarrel Congress is working to deprive U.S. consumers of their freedom to choose from which country their meat is produced.
If you agree you have a right to know where your meat is produced, call your U.S. senators and urge them to vote “no” on the repeal of COOL and “no” on converting COOL to a voluntary program.
Bill Bullard, a former Perkins County rancher, is the chief executive officer of R-Calf USA, based in Billings, Montana and a member of the CPA Board.