A recent move by the World Trade Organization (WTO) threatens to put more mystery in your meat while undermining our national sovereignty.
On May 18 the WTO ruled that American meat labels violate Canadian and Mexican free trade rights. The labels were created in accordance with the US Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) laws and show where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered. The labels are directed at American consumers and were implemented through the American political process. But they put Mexican and Canadian livestock producers at an unfair disadvantage, the WTO ruled. So they must go.
The House Agriculture Committee acted quickly in response to the decision. The very next day, a bill to repeal COOL laws for beef, pork and chicken was proposed. A day later, the committee passed it, 38-6.
National Farmers Union president Roger Johnson was on Capitol Hill following the WTO's decision, meeting with legislators and urging them to keep COOL, as it were. Johnson's team visited 150 offices, he told me by phone. Their message was simple: "Do nothing for these next several months while this process plays out."
The House Agriculture Committee is jumping the gun, he said, but the Senate "will not be in any hurry to do anything."
"Normally in the WTO, before any action is authorized is the time when countries are encouraged to negotiate. And that is precisely what should happen."
In a joint statement, Canadian and Mexican representatives praised the WTO’s ruling, and called COOL "damaging to North America's supply chain and harmful to producers and processors in all three countries."
The Canadian government has been tossing around the $1 billion figure for the damages its meat industry has suffered under COOL. The US-based National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) claims the implementation costs of COOL to US producers to be "in excess of $1 billion for beef alone." Such costs, they argue, come from keeping foreign-born animals separate from their US-born counterparts, which the industry claims is a record keeping nightmare.
Johnson chuckled when I brought up these numbers. "It's laughable," he said. "Nobody really believes that."
"The livestock industry is already segregated and hyper organized," Johnson said. When you buy a steer, "you get a printout for every animal," showing its weight, level of marbling and other characteristics. To implement COOL-style record keeping, Johnson suggested, involves little more than tweaking the computerized record-keeping systems already in place.
Auburn professor Robert Taylor recently published a study comparing the pre- and post-COOL marketplaces. He told me in an email that WTO based its decision on data that is not only weak, but secret.
"The WTO relied on analyses of proprietary Canadian cattle data analyzed by consultants to the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and the Canadian Government ... no independent economists can access the Canadian data."
Taylor said his study made use of the meat packer's mandatory price reporting data, which told a different story, in which COOL has negligible impact on the Mexican and Canadian meat industries.
This argument will get a fair hearing if WTO's process is allowed to continue, Johnson says. He expects the Canadians and Mexicans will seek retaliation based upon this ruling in the form of a tariff, at which point the United States will request arbitration. Canada and Mexico will be authorized to prove economic damages before they can retaliate. And this is where their job becomes a lot harder, as the damages will have to be proven in public.
But if COOL isn't so bad for North American ranchers, I asked Roger Johnson, then why are so many companies against it?
It's the international meat packers, he said, representatives of which sit on the boards of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and its Canadian and Mexican counterparts, and who send well-armed lobbyists to Capitol Hill.
Johnson says the global meat conglomerates don't like COOL because it eliminates a practice among meat packers that, while it lasted, was as convenient as it was profitable. They were passing off foreign meat as American-grown, and with the USDA's unwitting assistance.
"Meat imports are required to be inspected by USDA," Johnson explained. "Consumers see a USDA-beef stamp, and they think it's American made." Many Americans want to eat American-grown meat, which is why there is so much popular support for COOL among consumers, and among many non-NCBA affiliated producers as well. "Consumers want to know what's in their food, and producers would like to tell them," Johnson says. But the multinationals, "do not want to label country of origin, so they can go back to pretending that any product was US product."
Assuming the meat packers fail to force a sovereign nation to change its laws, the fact that a global trade agreement could conceivably do so casts an unflattering shadow on the already unpopular Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade deal currently being considered by Congress.
"This does make it more difficult for Congress to pass [TPP]," Johnson said. "One of the arguments that's being made is that there is nothing in the TPP that would require us to change our laws. Now we have a bunch of people in the House that are stampeding to change a law. It undercuts an argument made by fast track supporters that we'll be able to keep our own laws."
This is why many of the same groups that oppose COOL are also in support of TPP. They want the meat to flow like free capital, anonymously, across borders and around the world, to wherever it can return the most on some investor's dollar. If you're a consumer looking to weigh myriad health, environmental, animal and human rights impacts of meat eating, or if you just don't want to eat meat from China, your agenda is at odds with the priorities behind free-trade agreements like the TPP. If what's happening via COOL is any indication, the TPP won't be a victory for transparency in labeling.
How the World Trade Organization will finally resolve the dispute over COOL will say a lot about how much power Big Meat really has. If Johnson is right, and we keep COOL, it will be a victory for knowing where your food comes from, at the expense of Big Meat. It promises to be an engaging process.