The average American is slated to eat about 800 burgers’ worth of beef in 2018, or about 222 pounds.1 Where you get this beef, how it’s raised and, ultimately, the way it is prepared make all the difference in how it affects your health and the environment. Source matters — greatly — and part of that includes knowing where your beef was raised. You’d probably assume that beef labeled “Product of the USA” was a product of the U.S., but this isn’t necessarily the case.
In a lawsuit filed against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, ranch groups R-CALF USA and the Cattle Producers of Washington (CPoW) allege that millions of pounds of imported beef are being labeled as “Products of the USA.” They cite the Tariff Act of 1930, which requires imported beef to be labeled with its country-of-origin, including when it reaches the consumer, “unless the beef undergoes substantial transformation” in the U.S.2
However, the USDA has argued that imported beef can be treated as U.S. beef if it comes from a country with food safety standards that are equivalent to those in the U.S. As reported by the American Grassfed Association (AGA), “Consequently, the Secretary allows multinational meatpackers to label imported beef as ‘Products of the USA’ even if the imported beef receives only minor processing, such as unwrapping and rewrapping the package.”3
Why Is Imported Meat Allowed To Be Labeled as US Meat?
While it seems like labeling meat to let consumers know where it came from would be a straightforward requirement, it’s anything but. The original Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) rule, which was approved in 2002 and took effect in 2008, required the country of origin to be listed on meat labels. In 2013, the COOL rule was improved and meat packages were supposed to be required to label where the animal that provided your meat was born, raised and slaughtered.
At the time, industrial meat producers like Tyson, Cargill and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association were among those who spoke out against the rule, calling it unnecessarily costly and “shortsighted,” while fearing it would shrink demand for imported meat. Unfortunately for U.S. consumers seeking greater transparency in their food sources, the meat giants needn’t have worried because global dictators stepped in and essentially told consumers they don’t have the right to know.
In 2015, the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled U.S. law requiring COOL labels on meat was illegal, as it discriminated against Canadian and Mexican meat companies and gave an advantage to U.S. meat producers.4 WTO even ordered more than $1 billion in trade sanctions annually against the U.S. if the COOL labels were not weakened or removed altogether. As reported by the Huffington Post:5
“[The] World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling against the country-of-origin meat labels (COOL) that Americans rely on to make informed choices about their food provides a glaring example of how trade agreements can undermine U.S. public interest policies … Mexican and Canadian livestock producers and the U.S. meat processing industry fought fiercely against the policy’s initial enactment and then turn to deregulation-by-trade-agreement as Plan B.”
Americans Want to Know Where Their Meat Comes From
As it stands there is no USDA requirement that beef or pork be labeled to let consumers know what country it came from, despite the fact that Americans overwhelmingly want to know. A Consumers Union poll found that 93 percent of those who responded said they favored country-of-origin labeling.6 And why wouldn’t they? It’s one more way for you to know where your food comes from, providing once commonplace information that has disappeared in the industrial food arena.
By removing COOL, multinational companies are allowed to pass off imported meat as U.S.-raised, while U.S. farmers suffer. AGA noted, “Evidence submitted by the groups indicate that U.S. cattle producers received higher prices for their cattle when the origins of foreign beef was distinguished in the marketplace.” AGA president Will Harris continued:7
“The American Grassfed Family Farmer suffers financially, from this intentional anonymity, more than any other segment of the meat industry. Thank you R-Calf for bringing this injustice to light. Some American Consumers make the decision to pay a premium for beef that is produced in a humane and regenerative manner.
They do this, in part, to positively impact lands, animals and farm communities in the United States. Hiding the National Origin of products from these consumers is a travesty. It should not be tolerated.”
Meanwhile, the lawsuit against the USDA alleges that it’s actually illegal for the USDA to allow meat without country-of-origin labels because it violates the Meat Inspection Act. That act requires COOL on imported steaks and chops, according to Public Justice, which is representing the ranchers’ groups behind the lawsuit.
“And if you don’t believe our suit, believe the USDA itself,” Public Justice reported. “The department had COOL requirements in place for eight years, and it did so in order to be in compliance with the Meat Inspection Act. In other words, the USDA knows its current policies don’t follow the law; it is just captured by corporate interests. It’s time for that to change.”8