It seems that nearly everything we use in our daily lives is labeled with where it came from. Whether you’re talking about your winter coat, T-shirts or kitchen appliances, chances are they’re labeled with the name of the country where they were made.
Likewise, American consumers are increasingly concerned about the quality and safety of the food they’re purchasing and feeding their children, and pressed Congress to pass a law mandating that meat products be labeled with their country of origin.
Congress heard those demands loud and clear, and passed a law known as country-of-origin labeling (COOL) that mandates muscle cuts of meat, nuts, and some fruits and vegetables sold at retail be labeled with the names of countries where they were produced. It’s a commonsense law, because people like to know where their food comes from.
According to a May 2013 public opinion poll, the COOL law enjoys more than 90 percent consumer support. And as a fifth-generation Kansas cattleman, I can tell you that it also enjoys strong support from family farmers like me who are proud of what we produce. That’s why it’s so strange that an alliance between the multinational meat companies and our foreign trade competitors might derail the law altogether.
The eating local, or locavore, movement is not something new, nor is it a fad. There has been plenty of media coverage about some of the agricultural practices overseas, their use of chemicals and their inhumane treatment of food animals. Consumers want to know that the meat they put on their table – and feed their children – was raised in a humane environment and that the meat enjoyed the strict inspection process of the United States. Also, many consumers like the idea of buying American, which not only supports our own farm sector but keeps the money in the country.
Raising cattle in Kansas has been the main source of income for my family since the late 1860s. Producers happily embraced COOL because we are among the most productive farmers and ranchers in the world, raising the most affordable and safest products on the market. Frankly, we’re proud to see the “Product of the U.S.” label on the things we produce.
Sure, if Americans buy American-made, then the entire nation will benefit, but COOL is not at all meant to be any kind of trade barrier. If consumers prefer to buy meatballs from Thailand or chicken from China, it’s their right to do so. But they should be able to distinguish Chinese or Mexican meat products from those raised in the U.S. Clearly, nobody can make those informed decisions unless the product is labeled with its country of origin.
U.S farmers and ranchers have a gold-plated reputation to protect. If beef coming in from overseas is found to be tainted in any way, it will affect the entire consumer market in this country and potentially threaten a lot of livelihoods of family farmers and ranchers. This is not a small concern.
The multinational meat industry has tried and failed to stop COOL four times in the U.S. courts. Our foreign competitors, and their multinational meatpacker friends, have spent oodles of time and money also trying to stop COOL at the World Trade Organization. Apparently, it’s OK to label everything you put on your body but not what you put in your body. Does that make sense?
Let’s be honest. The best steaks I’ve ever eaten come right out of my freezer, and I think American consumers deserve that level of quality. Congress passed COOL and it has been embraced by the public. Congress and the White House need to stay the course on COOL and not buckle to pressure from our competitors.
Donn Teske, a farmer in northeast Kansas, is the president of the Kansas Farmers Union and vice president of National Farmers Union.