Country of Origin Labeling for Meat

About a decade ago, the US Congress passed mandatory country of origin labeling for a variety of food products including beef and pork.  At the time, we did some research on the costs of the law and the demand responses that would be required to offset those costs.  

In the intervening years, the law was implemented, the US was taken to court by Canada and Mexico, and the US labeling law was deemed to be an illegal trade barrier by the World Trade Organization (WTO).  However, rather than dropping the law altogether, lawmakers have doubled down and made them even more onerous and costly in an attempt to comply with the WTO ruling (you can read the current regs here).    

There is a key disconnect that is driving much of this debate.  When you ask people on surveys if they want to know the origin of their meat products, almost all say "yes."   But, when you look at the data on whether people read origin labels or whether demand for meat has been affected by the origin laws, a much different story emerges.  

Given that backdrop, I found the recent editorial by the president of the National Cattlemans Beef Association interesting (the Kansas Study to which he refers is here, and as you can see, I was a co-author on that publication).  Here is an excerpt:

It seems as if the first thing that is said whenever COOL is brought up is, “I am proud of the cattle my family raises,” and that is absolutely correct. I too am very proud of my family’s operation and all the work my wife and I, with our children and grandchildren, do to produce great beef. But a mandatory labeling program run by the federal government is not the way I want to showcase my product and add value. Labeling programs can work - just look at Certified Angus Beef or Safeway’s “Rancher’s Reserve.” These are marketing programs that are run by individuals with a specific interest and that is to promote and sell more beef to put on dinner tables across America. That is why these programs are successful. Additionally there is a tremendous amount of time and effort that goes into marketing these programs to the consumer.. But slapping on a label that says where this product was born, raised and slaughtered does not achieve the same result. In fact, a study by Kansas State University conducted in November of 2012 titled Mandatory County of Origin Labeling: Consumer Demand Impact made some key findings on this subject. The study found that mere country-of-origin information has not impacted consumer demand for beef or other covered products, and in fact, that many consumers are unaware labeling information exists. This is the issue with allowing the federal government to mandate a marketing program - it is not in their wheelhouse. Marketing at its very core relies on the distinction of one product from another. Neither USDA, nor any other government agency, can make that distinction based on origin labeling.