Country-Of-Origin Labeling (COOL) For Meat

The Controversy

Country-of-origin labeling (COOL) for meat is a current controversial policy in the United States generating much banter in the media, public policy arena and court system.  It seems like a complete disjoint of logic and spirit to empower people to be responsible and proactive about health, but not share or divulge information that supports the journey to attain a healthy and balanced diet further supporting freedom to make informed choices and healthy decisions.

Nationwide, consumers are increasingly demanding transparency and traceability of meat products in the food market.  Dietary and food market columnist, Phil Lempert predicted that transparency and traceability would be among Top 10 Food Trends in 2013 in the January newsletter of the Retail Dietitians Business Alliance.  He further explained that people want to know more about the foods they consume and where they are from.   This shift in attitude is readily evidenced by the increasing visibility and support of farmer’s markets.   People want to connect with their food, a sentiment that is both natural, and necessary to attaining true health of body, mind and spirit.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which is charged with overseeing that the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged, defines COOL as “neither a food safety or traceability program, but rather a consumer information program” (Food and Safety Education, 2013).  The foods covered by this policy include but are not limited to muscle cuts of beef (including veal), lamb, pork, goat and chicken, and ground versions of the above listed meats.  Meat items that are processed changing their character (ex. cooking, smoking, curing or restructuring), or combined with another food component (i.e. breaded chicken tenders and fish sticks or teriyaki flavored pork loin) do not require COOL labeling unless they arrive in consumer ready packages (Food and Safety Education, 2013).

COOL for meat was born out of the 2002 Farm Bill (Becker, 2002) and has ignited a dispute in the World Trade Organization (WTO) to bring COOL in to line with international trade labeling (Jurenas & Greene, 2013).  According to the COOL policy, a label for meat will state where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered.  It will also remove the allowance of commingling of cuts of meat from different livestock.  Those who oppose COOL argue “compelled speech” in the form of detailed labels, burdens associated with excessive labeling and recordkeeping costs, protectionism and discrimination.  Opposition is led by Canada, Mexico and select trade groups, both U.S. and abroad, representing livestock producers and foodmakers.  As of August 9, 2013, the filing of an injunction request to delay implementation of COOL for meat was dismissed.  The defendants are USDA, the current Obama administration, select U.S. producers of livestock, the National Farmers Union and the Consumer Federation of America, to name a few (Inside Washington Publishers, 2013).

Perspective of the Body

Country-of-origin labeling of meat is a serious controversy from the perspective of the body due to the potential of disease transmission via zoonoses (animal diseases transmissible to humans) and the processing practice of commingling of different animals in meat processing.  Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, portrayed the life and death of immigrants that worked in the U.S. meat packing industry at the turn of the 20th century and revealed atrocities which brought about social reform and triggered U.S. government regulation and oversight.  Of course animals that are born, processed and slaughtered in the U.S.A. can be ill, but that risk increases when animals from other countries are introduced into the food system.  This result from a host of factors including but not limited to: quality of the animal breed, sanitation, travel, feed, livestock environment, water, veterinary care, processing practices (ie. commingling of meat, cleanliness of equipment) and a relatively sophisticated and robust regulatory oversight, to name a few.  According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) website last updated on September 25, 2012, http://www.fao.org/ag/againfo/themes/en/animal_health.html,

“As a result of globalization and climate change the world is currently facing an unprecedented increase of emerging and re-emerging animal diseases and zoonoses.”  This critical paradigm clearly warrants an international comprehensive approach “to safeguard public health and ensure food safety.”     These issues can manifest in transboundary diseases, vectorial diseases, veterinary public health (including food safety) and veterinary services.   The feed that is provided to animals meant for human consumption should to be monitored to ensure the health and safety of the animals on an international level with regards to feed safety (ex. pesticide/herbicide residues, veterinary drug residue levels, contaminants and food additives.)  According to the World Health Organization website,

http://www.who.int/zoonoses/vph/en,

“About 75% of the new diseases that have affected humans over the past 10 years have been caused by pathogens originating from an animal or from products of animal origin. Many of these diseases have the potential to spread through various means over long distances and become global problems.”

As highlighted in National Public Radio’s, Morning Edition story titled Meat Groups Sue U.S.D.A. Over Meat Labeling Rule,  “The meat industry groups that sued, said in court documents, that about 4 percent to 7 percent of beef and pork consumed in the U.S. comes from animals from other countries.  In some parts of the U.S., including Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, as much as half of the livestock used for meat could be imported”(Pitt, 2013).  This practice increases the potential of exposure to contaminated meat.

Emotional Implications

The emotional implications of this controversy are complex.  On the one side I would suggest the parties involved in this controversy are not emotionally impacted and are driven by monetary motivations and politics.  On the other side of the controversy there are the consumers, which are emotionally impacted and motivated.  According to Susan Duncan’s, Practitioner Skills 1 lecture for MUIH on August 7,2012, emotions as opposed to moods, are shorter term (measured in moments to days) and are triggered by external events.  She further explained that unlike moods, they temporarily shift our predisposition to act.

Livestock owners and processors, grain farmers, feed companies, pesticide/herbicide chemical companies, shipping companies, freight companies, packaging companies and the multitude of associations and lobbyist representing them, Canadian and Mexican agricultural officials, and their respective livestock owners and processors, are financially interested in seeing that COOL legislation does not pass.  In simple terms this means that COOL legislation has negative implications for these businesses in their ability to profit.  On the other side of this controversy, supporting COOL for meat, are the consumers and organizations providing a collective voice for the consumers.

As a consumer, I find this an emotional issue; for I believe that I have a right to know about the foods I consume.  Emotions that I associate with this controversy are fear (safety of the products provided), disgust and sadness (at the inhumane treatment of animals), and distrust (in the food system to look out for the humane needs of animals and the people who consume them).

A large study conducted by BBMG, GlobeScan and SustainAbility concluded that more than 8 in 10 consumers (82%) internationally consider “ingredient transparency important or very important” when making decisions regarding food and beverage purchases.  The study went on to say that there exists a gap between what consumers desire (information) and what consumers actually do (reading the ingredient list or packaging) as highlighted on the  Corporate Social Responsibility Newswire, www.csrwire.com/…/35530-Consumers-Rank-Ingredient-Transparency- Among-Most-Important-Issues-For-Brands, dated June 17, 2013.

Emotionally, mainstream culture does not support expressing joy/gratitude for that which we eat (be it plant or animal) and therefore there continues to be an underlying disconnect between what we eat and how we feel.  I believe that this disconnect perpetuates a sense of hopelessness and resignation for many consumers and can further manifest in the level of obesity other chronic diseases experienced in our country.

There is a social, ecological and planetary impact of this COOL controversy.  Each of these types of impacts has vast and complex consequences.

Social Impact

Food, any type and in any context has a social impact.  In the healthiest cultures, identified as Blue Zones by Dan Buettner, eating is a social experience having a major impact on health and longevity of the inhabitants.  Sadly, in our culture in the United States, many meals are consumed under a time constraint, alone and in a distracting setting (i.e. in front of the TV or in the car).   Adding to the complexity of our social context of eating and being connected to our food is the concept Karl Marx called “commodity fetishism.”  This is defined as disconnect between the producers/processors and the consumers of a commodity.  In this case, farmers and livestock handlers/owners are completely removed from the people who consume the meat and the reverse is also true.  All sense of work and involvement are lost on the consumer.  This phenomenon lends itself to the extent of appreciating the animal/plant itself and the connectivity to the circle of life.  On the flip side, the producer/farmers lose site of the powerful part they play in the circle of life and simply focus on the “commodity.”  This line of thought leads to a negative race in wages and costs, truly cheating ALL participants (Felluga, 2011).

Another social impact as cited by the World Health Organization (WHO) website, http://www.who.int/zoonoses/vph/en,

“All major zoonotic diseases prevent the efficient production of food of animal origin, particularly of much-needed proteins, and create obstacles to international trade in animals and animal products. They are thus an impediment to overall socioeconomic development.”  Socially, this controversy is multifaceted and has a socioeconomic and political impact that reaches from a local to a global scale.

Socially, on both a national and international front, “public relations threats, and concern with public litigation exposure and legislative and regulatory action that could affect sales,” can cause an “erosion of trust” between consumers and the market (Sharma, Teret, & Brownwell, 2010).   The COOL for meat controversy has complex impacts on national and international political arenas.  This is immediately evidenced by Mexico and Canada’s responses by threatening to impose retaliatory trade sanctions.

Socially, the magnitude of COOL is hard to quantify.  For example, it can show up culturally, financially and politically having both negative and positive consequences depending on the perspective taken.  Measurement of the impact on a social level would be equally complex.

Ecological Impact

On an ecological level COOL of meat is very complicated due to the scope and variety of agricultural practices employed globally.  Effects associated with meat production include pollution, fossil fuels and land and water utilization.  Animal waste management and the impact on surrounding wildlife are other areas that need to be examined.  To fully appreciate the scope of the ecological impact would also require examination of the companies that support the meat production industry, such as transportation, packaging, feed production and pesticides/herbicides.   Supporting local, in-season, less shipping and fuels, sustainable agriculture, better treatment of animals and plants, reduction of pesticides/herbicides, reduction of pollution (air, water and earth) are only a few ways to improve the ecological impact of meat.  A crude measurement of this can be undertaken by examining the carbon footprint of meat production.

Planetary Impact

On a planetary level COOL of meat impacts all the above issues (social and ecological) and interrelationships on a global scale.  As cited earlier, Canada and Mexico have been very proactive in their dispute with United States COOL of meat in the judicial and political arenas.

Spiritual Aspects

The spiritual aspects of the COOL have profound and deep implications.  We are talking about food (meat, in this case) we take in daily, into our being and it becomes a part of us.  This spiritual breakdown starts with our disconnect with ourselves, our body and spirit and moves progressively into our family and friends and then our community, and on and on.

As highlighted in D. Minich’s book Chakra Foods for Optimum Health, Western culture fails to acknowledge the spiritual connection between food and healing that other cultures recognize.  “When we shed the idea of food being functional and replace it with choosing to eat to feel the gentle web-like connection with all of life, food takes on a note of Divinity and sacredness” (Minich, 2009).  Being confident in our food and choices about our food is supportive of a healthy mind, body and spirit and further nurtures our connectiveness with all living things.  Honoring the animals we consume by treating them humanely, clean water, supporting a healthy environment, “range free”, grass fed, healthy feed, is the best means of honoring our “Oneness” with the universe.  This would further extend to entail exercising moderate consumption to consuming just enough to provide grounding.

Conclusion

The COOL for meat controversy is a relevant and highly charged topic in nutrition.  I have come to the conclusion after researching and writing this paper that COOL for meat is a necessary and critical policy tool, the scope and reach although daunting, warrants attention and action because being armed with information to make well informed decisions allows us as consumers to better care for ourselves and for all (plants, animals, planet and each other).   As complex and multi-faceted as COOL for meat is, the implementation of it also holds each participant in the food supply chain more accountable for their part and pulls them into the “Circle of Life” for a deeper connectivity.

 

References
Becker, G. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service.  (2002, Update May13,
            2008).Country-of-origin for foods. (97-508). Retrieved from U.S. Government
            Printing Office website:  http://fpc.state.gov/documents/organization/106148.pdf
Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Marx: On Fetishism." Introductory Guide to Critical
Theory. Date of last update January 31, 2011. Purdue U. Date accessed the site August 22, 2013. <http://www.purdue.edu/guidetotheory/marxism/modules/marxfetishism.html>.
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