In the wake of last week’s Congressional repeal of mandatory country of origin labeling (COOL) on beef and pork products, much has been written about the potential impact of the change on consumers. The claims from some COOL supporters range from arguments that we have no way of knowing where meat comes from to COOL is needed to prevent e. coli outbreaks such as the ones recently seen at Chipotle. Many of the claims are misleading at best and in some cases simply untrue. So what does COOL repeal actually mean for meat labels and consumer information about meat? Here are some answers to common questions and misconceptions.
Q: Why was mandatory COOL repealed?
While the meat industry has long opposed COOL due to the considerable costs to the industry with little consumer benefit, Canada and Mexico have also repeatedly challenged COOL at the World Trade Organization (WTO), arguing it imposes trade barriers violating our agreements with those countries. After ruling four times against the U.S. in the dispute, the WTO set damages at more than $1 billion meaning Canada and Mexico could impose tariffs with devastating economic consequences against a host of industries, ranging from cherry producers to maple syrup processors to wooden furniture and mattress makers if the law wasn’t repealed.
Q: Is my meat less safe because there is no mandatory COOL for beef and pork?
USDA has long been very clear that COOL is not a food safety program, writing in 2009, “The COOL program is not a food safety program” and “COOL is a retail labeling program and as such does not provide a basis for addressing food safety.”
The current opening paragraph of USDA’s own Q&A on COOL states: “The Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) program is neither a food safety or traceability program but rather a consumer information program. Food products, both imported and domestic, must meet the food safety standards of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Food safety and traceability are not the stated intent of the rule, and the COOL program does not replace any other established regulatory programs that related to food safety or traceability.”
In other words, no matter where an animal is born, raised or slaughtered, in the U.S. that animal is subject to the same food safety standards. A look at meat safety in the U.S. shows that 99.99 percent of meat is consumed safely. We can continue to improve food safety as well as tracking outbreaks when they occur, but as USDA says, COOL is not and never was designed for that.
Q: But what if I want to know if my meat came from China?
Quite simply, it didn’t because China is not approved to export meat to the U.S.
Currently there are 27 countries permitted to export beef or pork to the U.S.: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Germany, Honduras, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Northern Ireland, Poland, San Marino, Spain and Uruguay. In order to achieve this status, the inspection systems in those countries must be deemed equivalent to U.S. standards. The vast majority of imported meat (but still a minority of what we consume) comes from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Mexico.
If meat comes directly in retail ready packs from any of those countries, it still must be labeled as a product of that country. COOL repeal hasn’t changed that.
Q: Some of those countries approved to send meat to the U.S. have had cases of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). Shouldn’t we be concerned?
Much like food safety, COOL was never meant as protection against BSE. Although BSE is now very rare around the world, the U.S. has numerous hurdles in place specifically designed to prevent BSE, including inspection of any meat that enters the country. Only food products that have been shown to be safe and do not harbor the infective agent may be imported. COOL repeal has not impacted these important steps.
Q: But what if I still want to know where my meat comes from?
There are still options for those who are interested. All meat processed to be sold commercially in the U.S. (i.e. meat not directly imported in retail ready packs and labeled as such) must pass through a USDA inspected establishment and meet all USDA regulations for meat produced in the U.S. All meat products sold on store shelves have borne this mark of inspection with a federally inspected establishment number, which tells you exactly where the meat was processed.
Although mandatory COOL for beef and pork is repealed, that doesn’t mean companies can’t voluntarily share the details of where an animal was born, raised and slaughtered. While most research has indicated that consumer demand for origin information is minimal, if companies determine that their customers value that information they can still offer provide origin information
COOL never applied to meat sold at restaurants or even processed meat products, such as hot dogs or bacon, so repeal has no impact on them.
Hopefully, this information answers some of the basic questions and misconceptions about the COOL repeal. The bottom line is that consumer demand will ultimately determine the future of origin labels. If country of origin information is something consumers truly want and are willing to pay for, industry will find a way to provide it.