Where's the beef? (Raised, slaughtered and processed?)

California cows.

Consumers who are curious about where their steak was born are about to find out.  Or at least, they’re about to get the chance.  

A ribeye can be a dual citizen. It’s not unusual for cattle to be born in Mexico, then shipped to the U.S. to be fattened up, and slaughtered at a processing plant here. 

For the last few years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has required anybody selling a bi-national pork chop to disclose that. The label may say, “Product of the U.S. and Mexico.”

Canada and Mexico complained to the World Trade Organization that those rules essentially discriminated against their ranchers and farmers. The World Trade Organization agreed.

The new rules up the ante.  Now, there are more details and specific language.  Starting Saturday, new regulations will require that meat labels tell us where the animal was born, where it lived, and where it died.   

Erik Lieberman, a lawyer for the Food Marketing Institute, which represents supermarkets, says the new rules place burdens on grocers.

Also, he’s not wild about the language.  "'Slaughtered, is unappetizing," he says.  

Of course, they could use “harvested” instead.  Lieberman says, “'Harvested' isn’t much better, to be honest."

There’s not a lot of evidence people will actually pay more for meat born-and-raised (and killed) in the U.S., according to Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist at Oklahoma State University

"Consumers say they want information on labeling," he says. "But when you observe their behavior in the marketplace, you just don’t see that desire tranlated into dollars when people are shopping."

Glynn Tonsor, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University, has looked at the effect of the current labeling rules.

If “effect” is the right word.

"Two-thirds of the U.S. public doesn't even know we have country of origin labeling," he says. "So the reaction to that is, it's hard to say they're going to pay more if they don't know it exists."

Even if the new labels are more prominent, they probably won’t affect shopping for Thanksgiving dinner.  They hit beef, chicken, pork, lamb and goat.  But turkey gets a pass.

About the author

Dan is a sustainability reporter for Marketplace.
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When Glynn Tonsor says most consumers don't even know COOL labels even exist, he's correct... because the labeling laws we currently have are so anemic and pointless.

Just this week I bought orange juice that says it "may" be derived from sources in Brazil, Mexico, China or the United States. Some label. Saying meat is both Mexican and American tells me so precious little that I might as well have a label saying "somewhere west of the Atlantic."

Alaska salmon fishermen have been challenged with maintaining a reputation for clean and sustainable, yet when some of those salmon are processed in China, they bear a "Made in China" tag on the package backside with "Wild Salmon" splashed across the front. Since China harvests (yes, we use the word) no wild sockeye salmon, consumers are left scratching their heads in confusion... and I can't blame them.

We need real labeling laws that tell us everything useful about the items we're buying, but we seem destined to never get them.

I'm not surprised that Jayson Lusk doesn't see a dollar amount associated with more precise meat labeling. It seems to me that the major motivating factor behind wanting more transparent labels is for consumers to know which meats to avoid. We may see a flux in distribution of meat sales, but overall the amount of money going into this market will either remain constant, and may even decline with additional details about the origins and history of the animals.

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