Our Voice: USDA's meat labeling rules add costs without benefits

September 20, 2013 

Good steaks and burgers are part of the rites of summertime barbecues.

Throw some chicken and a few pork and lamb chops on the grill and you have a carnivore's delight.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture put new meat labeling rules into effect in May that have the meat industry upset. The mandatory labels detail country of origin as well as where the animal was born, raised and butchered.

The American Meat Institute filed a lawsuit to block the new rules, saying there's no need for that kind of labeling. It's too costly and doesn't provide health benefits to the consumer.

A federal judge disagreed earlier this month, refusing to stop the new rules, though she did not make a decision on the overall lawsuit. The meat industry vowed to fight.

At issue are labels on your meat packages that would cover the three production steps. An animal that has been raised and butchered in the U.S. would result in meat labeled: "Born, Raised, and Slaughtered in the United States." For meat from animals born outside the United States, one type of label could state: "Born in Mexico, Raised and Slaughtered in the United States," according to the USDA website. For meat derived from animals imported for immediate slaughter, one type of label could state: "Born and Raised in Canada, Slaughtered in the United States.

Processors also cannot mix meat from animals born, raised or slaughtered in other countries with domestically produced meat.

Ranchers say meat labeling is a marketing issue, and not something the government should dictate. We get that consumers want to know if they're buying imported meat - already butchered - and that meat already is labeled with the country of origin, such as the "Product of New Zealand" tag found on lamb chops at Costco. The new rules don't change that.

But for ranchers along our nation's borders who import cattle born in other countries to feed and slaughter, it becomes a greater issue. Ranchers say imported cattle probably are even safer than those born here because of the testing required on imported livestock. Canada already is threatening tariffs on imports of other U.S. goods, fearing retailers here will be more likely to reject foreign meat under the new labeling rules.

To us, the rules seem arbitrary and an unnecessary burden on U.S. businesses. And they could make meat more expensive. With only 4 percent to 7 percent of the beef and pork we consume coming from other countries, it seems like a lot of work for a little information.

The USDA estimates the labeling change could cost $53 million to $192 million, with the implementation costs being borne by the middlemen, packing houses, processors and retailers. It's expected those costs would be passed along to the consumer in the form of higher prices for the end product.

We'd be more supportive if the rules had something to do with consumer safety. But according to the USDA's own website, the "Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) program is neither a food safety or traceability program but rather a consumer information program."

The industry was given a six-month grace period for compliance. The USDA calls it an "education and outreach" campaign.

Yes, we want our food supply to be safe but that's not what this is about. The labeling purely is a consumer information issue, and a costly burden on the industry.

If you want to know specifics about the meat you eat, ask your grocer before you buy. Or, better yet, buy an animal on the hoof from a local producer and have it butchered yourself. You can get the cuts you enjoy along with the knowledge of how and where the animal was raised all while supporting several local businesses from the rancher to the butcher.

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