Have you been at the butcher counter of your local grocery store and wondered about the Country-of-Origin-Labeling (COOL) stickers that say something like, “Product of Canada and the U.S.?” I often feel like I spend an inordinate amount of time at the grocery store mulling over the information included on meat product labels when deciding what cut of meat to take home for that night’s dinner. When my thoughts are preoccupied with whether to make steak tacos or stir fry, they often are focused on what part of the flank steak in front of me is a product of Canada, and what part is from the United States.
When I read a label, I want to know where my meat comes from, including which steps of production were carried out where. Currently, there is no way to know which steps of production were carried out in the United States and which were done abroad, such as in Canada or Mexico. Labels today can tell me that at some point, the meat I put on my table was in Country X and that at some point it was also in Country Y, but I am left completely unaware of whether the animal was in Country X for all of its life except the moment it was slaughtered, or whether it was actually just born in Country X and then raised and slaughtered in Country Y. For example, that flank steak I mentioned earlier, with the label “Product of Canada and the U.S.,” could have been born in Canada, but have spent its life in the United States and been slaughtered in the United States, or it could have been born and raised in Canada and merely imported for immediate slaughter in the United States. The scenarios are endless.
For consumers who wish to buy products that contribute as much as possible to the U.S. economy, knowing the country of origin for each step in the production process is important. With more information, we can make better decisions. To reduce confusion and help consumers make purchasing decisions, only a label that guarantees livestock was born, raised and slaughtered in the United States should say be able to say “Product of the U.S.” If any production processes occur in a foreign country, labels should have to indicate that. In other words, beef raised in Canada before being exported for slaughter in the United States should be labeled in a way that – an appropriate and clear example would be “Imported from Canada. Processed in the U.S.,” informing buyers of exactly what steps took place where. COOL currently informs consumers if their meat has an origin of more than two countries also, such as “Product of Canada, Mexico, and U.S.,” but that still leaves me wanting more information — there should be a label that distinguishes between the locations of the various production processes, which could also include a differentiation between importation for immediate slaughter compared to importation for raising and then slaughter. Fortunately, the proposed rule that the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently issued will provide that missing information and serve to better inform consumers.
Allowing consumers access to more information is a win-win situation for all parties involved. For example, in the case of a foodborne illness outbreak, the more detailed labeling systems are, the more confidence consumers will have in their purchases and so be less likely to refrain from buying all of an affected type of meat and instead, limit their avoidance only to items that they know are linked to a location-specific outbreak. Ultimately, those who sell products of high quality have an incentive to tell consumers, which leads me to believe that those who are against disclosing information have something to hide. It’s a fundamental economic principle that the more information is available, the better a market will work. As a consumer, I want as much information as possible to be readily accessible when I am making decisions like whether I will ultimately serve those steak tacos to my friends for dinner.