In public policy, as in life, learning from past mistakes is a cardinal rule for success. That is why it was disappointing to see Thomas Gremillion from the Consumer Federation of America advocate for the reinstatement of mandatory country-of-origin labelling (MCOOL) for beef and pork in a recent guest opinion column on the Food Safety News website.
Fore more than six years MCOOL was law of the land, but did nothing to protect consumer safety or our food supply. Instead, MCOOL led to wasted taxpayer dollars, job losses, and economic harm to rural communities across the country. The Trump Administration was wise to leave MCOOL out of NAFTA renegotiation objectives. Negotiators should continue to resist calls from MCOOL activist groups trying to manufacture a food safety crisis for their own political objectives.
American consumers have nothing to fear about the integrity of our beef supply. Delivering the safest, highest quality beef to Americans is a top priority for U.S. beef producers. Beef producers and processors have invested millions in food safety research, and are committed to continuous improvements based on the latest science. Working closely with the U. S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. beef producers have helped create one of the most robust food safety systems in the world. Laws, regulations, and industry standards are in place to ensure that all beef sold in America – whether it originated in the U.S. or a foreign country – is safe for consumption.
The USDA regulations do not stop at America’s borders. Imported beef is subject to the same strict standards as beef produced on American soil. Monitoring of beef imports is routine and constant, and officials take swift action when problems are uncovered. In June of this year, for example, USDA suspended all imports of fresh beef from Brazil because of safety concerns. We do not need MCOOL to insure our beef is safe.
Proponents also claim that without MCOOL, consumers are left in the dark about their choices of meat at the supermarket. We can all agree that consumer choice is an important aspect of our free market system, but the claim of MCOOL advocates does not pass the smell test.
Consumers are not being duped into buying foreign meat. The latest figures from USDA estimated that beef imports will account for a mere 10.5 percent of total consumption in the United States. That is hardly an import flood. Plus the vast majority of that product is bound for foodservice and would not be covered by MCOOL, anyway. What is more, USDA regulations already require imported beef products processed overseas to show the country of origin on the label.
MCOOL went one step further than existing regulations, requiring labels to show where an animal was born and raised. This type of mandatory labeling increased costs but provided no additional benefit to consumers. In fact, independent researchers at Kansas State University found that a vast majority of American consumers prioritized quality, appearance and value over country of origin when buying beef. The same study also found that typical Americans were unaware of MCOOL when it was in place, and rarely looked for meat origin information when making a purchase.
A wide array of voluntary labels currently used by beef producers and retailers have proven more effective at addressing consumer demands in the meat aisle. Labels like “Certified Angus Beef” or “Showcase Premium 100% USA Beef” promote products with specific characteristics, without government mandates or costly regulations. Regardless of your purchasing priorities, our free market system allows U.S. beef producers and retailers to provide various options at competitive prices. That is what consumer choice is all about.
If MCOOL does not improve food safety or support consumer choice, why was it implemented in the first place?
The answer has to do with misguided economic thinking. Small segments of the U.S. beef industry have traditionally supported policies that impede the live cattle trade with Canada and Mexico. With MCOOL, they hoped that forcing retailers to label where animals were born would lead to higher demand for U.S.-born cattle, increasing prices and profits for U.S. producers.
Unfortunately, the results looked more like a Greek tragedy than an economic success story. MCOOL failed to increase demand for U.S. beef and did not result in higher value for producers.
Instead, the added costs and regulatory burden were forced back down the production chain, reducing profits for every segment of the production chain. MCOOL reduced cow-calf sector profitability, forced U.S. feedlots and beef processing facilities to lay off workers, and even caused some to shutter their doors permanently. Job losses and reduced economic activity caused serious harm to rural communities where employment options are already limited.
In the absence of repeal, MCOOL would have caused a trade war with Canada and Mexico, compounding the economic harm for Americans across the country. The World Trade Organization (WTO) did not “nullify” MCOOL, as Gremillion claims. However, the WTO did authorize Canada and Mexico to impose tariffs on American exports if MCOOL remained in place. These tariffs – essentially additional taxes on American products – would have jeopardized billions of dollars in exports to two of our largest trading partners. American cattle producers would have undoubtedly borne the brunt of those costs.
Our elected officials made a smart decision when they repealed MCOOL in 2015. Had the law persisted, it would have continued to damage the fabric of rural America and unnecessarily raise costs for American producers and consumers. All this for a flawed government program that had nothing to do with food safety or consumer choice. Americans learned their lesson about the impact of MCOOL. The NAFTA renegotiations are no place to resurrect the failed policies of the past.
About the author: A fourth-generation cattleman from Elwood, Neb., Craig Uden is president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which has offices in Denver and Washington D.C. Uden is a partner in Darr Feedlot Inc., a commercial cattle feeding operation in central Nebraska. He and his wife Terri also own and manage three commercial cow-calf operations. Along with serving on the Nebraska Beef Council, Uden has served on the Nebraska Cattlemens Board of Directors, the Nebraska Cattlemens Research & Education Foundation, and the Nebraska Feedlot Council.
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