Transparency is not high on the agendas of global trade regulators. As if to prove the point, the World Trade Organization this month rejected a final effort by the U.S. government to save red meat country-of-origin labeling (COOL) requirements first mandated by Congress more than a decade ago.
COOL added a meaningful layer of transparency, beyond the cellophane wrapper, to beef and pork products sold in the American market. Since 2002, producers have been required to disclose not just an animal’s citizenship status, but also other biographical details, including where the story ended. The original idea was to help ensure that a “100% U.S. beef” label was applied only to livestock whose papers might satisfy the Constitution’s presidential eligibility clause.
Yet as much as consumers may have loved COOL’s transparency, powerful interests opposed it from the start. Mexico and Canada, along with large domestic meat producers who didn’t want to spend time segregating herds and tracing life stories, worked hard for repeal and celebrated the WTO’s determination that COOL was essentially a barrier to free trade.
The rules don’t immediately evaporate with the WTO decision, however. Congress must either repeal the law or brace for retaliatory tariffs from competing nations. Predictably, politicians who love pork, and don’t particularly care where it comes from, are already clamoring for a return to the age of mystery meats.
Although the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has been defending the law, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been laying the groundwork for its repeal. Last year the USDA commissioned a study onCOOL’s economic consequences. According to Food Safety News, the final report, drafted by academics from Kansas State University and the University of Missouri, concluded that “country-of-origin labeling does not provide much in the way of ‘measurable economic benefits’ for American consumers and costs producers, packers, and retailers in the United States $2.6 billion a year for all covered commodities.”
The report added: “While there is evidence of consumer interest in COOL information, [there is] little evidence that consumers are likely to increase their purchases of food items bearing U.S.-origin labels.”
Food Safety News notes that the USDA-sponsored researchers did acknowledge that transparency may be a legitimate goal, albeit a concept the academics find maddeningly hard to quantify: “While the chances of finding consumer economic benefits from COOL were slim, they did recognize the ‘substantial interest’ inCOOL by some based on a so-called ‘consumer’s right to know.’”
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