Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Where's the Beef... From?

Government regulations, in recent years, were put in place to give consumers more access to information regarding the where, what, who and how of the food they're buying. However, it seems the last 5 years have seen twice as many new regulations as the last 20. Regarding these issues with food sanitation and safety, the public has the right to know as much information as possible about the food they consume. The latest issue involves labeling the country of origin on all meat products. 

Back in 2009, the USDA passed a law the requires retailers to put the country of origin label (otherwise known as COOL) on all types of food, including meat, fruit and vegetables. This information provides consumers the whereabouts of the food they are purchasing and ultimately consuming.
As you may expect, having the label "product of the U.S." became the most bought items off the shelves. We all feel being grown, raised and produced in our home country means a better product. Of course, this triggered a decline in Canadian and Mexican imports leading the countries to complain of discrimination to the World Trade Organization. Just this May - yes, another new regulation - the USDA issued a set of rules that requires more detailed labels to be put on meat.
This issue has caused many trade groups to file a lawsuit against the USDA in regard to these labeling regulations. Previous law required a package to say, for example, "Product of U.S. and Canada." Now the new law requires that labels must be more specific, such as, "Born in Canada, raised and slaughtered in the United States."

The American Meat Institute claims segregating the meat is not part of the law Congress passed and the USDA is overstepping its authority. "Segregating and tracking animals according to the countries where production steps occurred and detailing that information on a label may be a bureaucrat's paperwork fantasy, but the labels that result will serve only to confuse consumers, raise the prices they pay, and put some producers and meat and poultry companies out of business in the process," said Mark Dopp, an AMI executive.
There is a small percentage of beef and pork consumed that comes from other countries. Once in the country, the meat becomes interchangeable with meat from U.S. animals.  It's premise is that requiring meat labels to include these details is too costly and serves no public health or safety benefit. I guess part of this is true. Who is to say a cattle farmer in Montana is different than one north of the border? Under the new law, suppliers will be forced to segregate the animals along the entire supply chain in order to comply.

However, these new changes will not come without cost. According to a USDA estimate, this change will cost between $53-$190 million to put in place, and the Grocers Association says over $100 million will need to be spent on updating machines, labels and signs.
I guess the new regulation gives you that sense of comfort knowing that if there were ever a problem, proper channels are in place to locate the cause. By all means, I want to know where the food I eat comes from just as much as all of you... but at what price?

And if that's not bad enough, new studies also show that hot, dry conditions in Texas (the biggest U.S. cattle producer) leave cattle with very little pasture... resulting in low beef margins and higher prices.  It may be another 2-3 years before we see beef production back on track.  Though I'm sure we'll see plenty of new regulations before that happens.

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