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Thanks to a little-known congressional bill, it may soon be impossible to tell whether your Fourth of July burger is all-American Angus or beef imported from the Amazon, according to a Facebook meme.
"The House of Representatives just voted 300-131 to remove ‘country-of-origin labeling’ on chicken, pork, and beef sold in the United States," the meme says. "Sorry but you don’t deserve to know where your meat is coming from."
What beef could the House possibly have with the consumer-friendly law? We looked into the vote in question and found an interesting story of international trade disputes, riled up Canadian hog farmers, and "jingoist fears."
Meat of the matter
Under the country-of-origin labeling law, or COOL, supermarkets have to tell consumers where their meat, fish, and nuts are produced with varying degrees of specificity (i.e. "Born in Canada, Slaughtered in the U.S.", "Farm-Raised in Vietnam", or simply a laundry list of all the countries the product has passed through). COOL passed in 2002 but wasn’t fully implemented until March 2009.
By then, Canada already had a bone to pick with the law, saying it violated World Trade Organization agreements. A mandatory "made-in" stamp discriminated against foreign hog farmers and cattle ranchers and was too costly to boot, according to Canada. Joining Canada’s complaint were a long list of other countries.
Between 2011 and 2015, the WTO ruled four times that COOL was inconsistent with trade agreements. The United States made several unsuccessful appeals, but eventually Canada and Mexico asked the WTO for permission to impose retaliatory tariffs totalling $3 billion. The WTO’s decision is pending.
In May of 2015, House Agriculture Committee Chair K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, introduced H.R. 2393, a bill to repeal the labeling requirements for ground and muscle cuts of beef and pork -- and threw in chicken for good measure.
"Retaliation by Canada and Mexico will soon become a reality, meaning economically devastating tariffs on a broad spectrum of U.S. exports," Conaway wrote in Roll Call. "Ripple effects will be felt in nearly every industry, every state and every consumer’s wallet. This is why COOL for beef, pork and chicken — nothing more than a failed government experiment — must be repealed."
On June 10, the House passed the repeal bill by a not-entirely partisan vote of 300-131: a third of House Democrats voted in favor of the Republican-backed bill.
Saving COOL’s bacon
The meme’s wording implies that the country-of-origin labeling law’s fate is sealed, but that’s a bit hammed up. The bill now awaits the Senate’s and, ultimately, President Barack Obama’s approval. In the upper chamber, COOL repeal will be more of a battle.
"The politics are going to be much, much more difficult in the Senate," said Victoria Guida, a trade reporter for Politico. "Part of the reason this passed the House so easily is because so many other industries, outside of the meat world, are freaked out about retaliation. But the Senate tends to be a little more big-picture about policies, and straight repeal is expected to have a tough time."
The Senate Agricultural Committee held hearings on June 25, where Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., called for repeal. In lieu of completely getting rid of the labeling law, top Democrat, Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, proposed a voluntary labeling system supported by some Republicans but rejected by Conaway.
We didn’t hear back from the White House about what the president plans to do if the bill reaches his desk.
If the repeal is greenlit by both the Senate and the White House, country-of-origin still won’t be prohibited from meat packaging. As per Stabenow’s proposal, it could potentially mirror the USDA’s paid grading service of beef (i.e. "prime choice" and "select"), though supporters say that’s not enough.
"The (meat) industry has had plenty of time to do a COOL program, and they didn't. So we have mandatory COOL. That is the solution that provides consumers with what they’re demanding," Chris Waldrop of the Consumer Federation of America.
What’s at 'steak'
At its core, COOL is a consumer rights law, intended to help people make purchasing decisions -- be it supporting American ranchers or boycotting beef associated with Amazon deforestation. Yet it has provoked intense debate.
While 90 percent of Americans want country-of-origin labeling, the interest doesn’t necessarily reflect in the dollars spent, says Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist at Oklahoma State University.
"Analysis of scanner data from grocery stores shows essentially no impact of (mandatory country-of-origin labeling) when buying meat," he said. "Despite this, there are real and demonstrable costs to processors and retailers. Thus, the totality of evidence suggests that COOL does not pass a cost-benefit test."
Canada and Mexico have also argued that the labeling might make people think U.S. products are safer, even when experts say there is little evidence to support or refute that point.
"U.S. companies have been doing a marvelous job of poisoning us for years," said Bill Marler, a food-borne illness attorney and publisher of Food Safety News. He pointed out that Malaysia banned American apples earlier this year due to a listeria outbreak, and Mexico rejected Californian lettuce in 2006 after growers found E. coli on the crop.
While Marler thinks COOL can feed "jingoist fears," he nonetheless supports it, as he believes in greater transparency in the food system. Like Marler, 283 consumer, agricultural, environmental, labor, and faith-based groups say COOL is about empowering consumers. In a letter ultimately unheeded by Conaway, they urged the House to not bow to the standard scare tactics of trade partners.
"We shouldn't automatically repeal a law passed by Congress because an international trade tribunal tells us it violates trade law. We first need to look at other options aside from repeal," said Ben Lilliston of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a sustainable farming advocacy group. He added that COOL laws exist around the world, and United States has willingly paid tariffs when it’s disagreed with past WTO rulings.
"Consumers have a legitimate interest in knowing where their food comes from," said Waldrop of the Consumer Federation of America.
"The House of Representatives just voted 300-131 to remove ‘country-of-origin labeling’ on chicken, pork, and beef sold in the United States," according to a Facebook meme.
The bill in question seeks to repeal mandatory country-of-origin labeling or COOL from ground and muscle cuts of chicken, pork, and beef. The House passed it in June this year with a 300-131 vote, after Canada and Mexico said the consumer rights law was unfair to foreign hog farmers and cattle ranchers and threatened to impose retaliatory tariffs.
The Senate has yet to decide on the labeling law’s fate and, at this early stage, there has been support for making COOL voluntary. While country-of-origin labeling isn’t quite dead meat, the House voted for repeal.
We rate the claim True.
Interview with Sam Ellard, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, June 30, 2015
Interview with Linda Calvin, agricultural economist at the U.S Department of Agriculture, June 30, 2015
Interview with Bill Marler, publisher of Food Safety News, June 30, 2015
Interview with Chris Waldrop, director of food policy at the Consumer Federation of America, June 30, 2015
Email interview with Ben Lilliston , vice president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, June 30, 2015
Email interview with Jayson Lusk, professor of agricultural economics at Oklahoma State University, June 30, 2015
Email interview with Victoria Guida, trade reporter for Politico, July 1, 2015
Email interview with Eric Mittenthal, spokesperson for the North American Meat Institute, June 30 to July 1, 2015
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Country of Origin Labeling, June 1, 2015
Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada, WTO to Hear Canada’s Challenge to U.S. Mandatory Country-of-Origin Labelling, Nov. 19, 2009
World Trade Organization, Dispute: United States — Certain Country of Origin Labelling (COOL) Requirements, June 17, 2015
Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada, Statement by Canada and Mexico on U.S. Country of Origin Labelling, June 4, 2015
Congress.Gov, H.R.2393 - Country of Origin Labeling Amendments Act of 2015, June 11, 2015
Roll Call, "Country of Origin Labeling: All Cost, No Benefit | Commentary," May 18, 2015
North American Meat Institute, North American Meat Institute President and CEO Barry Carpenter Tells Senators Mandatory Country-Of-Origin Labeling Must Be Repealed, June 25, 2015
U.S, Chamber of Commerce, Hill Letter on U.S. Mandatory Country-Of-Origin-Labeling (COOL) Rule, Oct. 30, 2014
Consumer Federation, Large Majority of Americans Strongly Support Requiring More Information on Origin of Fresh Meat, May 15, 2013
Wall Street Journal, U.S. Meatpackers Fight New Country-of-Origin Labels, Nov. 18, 2013
Straits Times, "Malaysia bans imports of Gala, Granny Smith apples from the US." Jan. 18, 2015
Los Angeles Times, "Mexico's Ban on U.S. Lettuce Yields Anger," Oct. 12, 2006
Agri-Pulse, Coalition Letter Opposing COOL Repeal, June 8, 2015
U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service, The EU's Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) Policy, March 19, 2014
Law360, House OKs Bill to Cut Meat Labeling Rules After WTO Loss, June 10, 2015
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