As of 2002, meat sold in stores across the US has carried a mandatory COUNTRY OF ORIGIN (COOL) label. This lets us know if we’re eating a burger from home or from six countries around the world (sometimes in the same burger - see above!). This may seem like basic information; yet, this law is becoming a point of heated contention between the US, our neighbors, and the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) requires retailers to list the origins of certain foods, ranging from meats to fruits to macadamia nuts. For beef, pork, lamb, and chicken, this means that the package must list where the animal was born, raised, and processed. As consumers, this is critical information for supporting local business, as well as lessening the food miles behind raising, processing, and selling a single steak.
In order to enforce this law, animals imported from other countries carry additional baggage. Meatpackers receiving animals from abroad must keep files on the animals’ international origins and modify labels to list every country involved. By some folks in the industry, this is seen as a substantial burden, when, frankly, even domestic animals should be held to high tracking standards. In the case of ground meat, where many animals are processed in the same facility, we have seen labels read: “Product of US, Australia, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, and Uruguay.” Without COOL, this meat could appear indistinguishable from local, thoroughly sourced alternatives. Although consumers may appreciate this diligence, Canada and Mexico have appealed this law to the WTO, and won.
By attaching extra responsibility to imported animals, importers argue that US law is biased towards domestic products and gives neighboring countries a trade disadvantage on “equivalent” products. But eliminating the COOL standards would turn the meat industry into an international wild west—anything goes, no accountability necessary.
Just this summer, the WTO ruled against the US and mandatory COOL labeling. Shortly thereafter, the House voted to repeal the law as well—likely with help from industrial agriculture players eager to export US beef and pork. In the Senate, a new bill has been introduced to encourage voluntary COOL labeling rather than mandatory tracking. On the international stage, Mexico and Canada are seeking severe retaliatory penalties on the US totaling more than 3 billion dollars—much more than the financial damage the US Trade Representative found due to COOL.
Eliminating COOL would remove yet another shred of information about the food we eat—further clouding labels that already often skimp on basic facts. Is it really too much for consumers to demand to know what country their meat comes from?
Buying local, from people you know and trust, takes the guesswork out of voting with your dollar. Losing these valuable labels would not only benefit industrial agriculture, but also obscure the values and efforts of trustworthy brands.