Agreement approved by ministers in Bali expected to lower trade barriers and add up to $1tn to world economy.
Amarillo, Texas – Shoppers in the meat aisle of a Texas supermarket peruse a variety of beef, one of the trademarks of their state.
“Product of the USA”, read the stickers on the packages. Texans are “proud of their beef, and proud of the ranchers who produce it”, according to Mary Foster, a 45-year-old mother of two who is doing her weekly shopping.
But recent rulings by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the corresponding response from the United States Congress have made the mandatory labelling of the meat products’ country of origin, known as Country of Origin LabelIng (COOL), a thing of the past.
On December 21, a WTO tribunal allowed Canada and Mexico, two of the US’ closest neighbours, allies and competitors in the beef industry, to implement $1bn in retaliatory tariffs in response to the US COOL law.
COOL passed Congress in 2002, but faced major opposition from multinational cattle producers and other cattlemen organisations, and was not implemented until 2008.
It required that any meat – beef, pork, chicken, or lamb – sold in the US display the animal’s country of birth, regardless of where it was processed, on the packaging.
The decision to repeal COOL came after a protracted battle arbitrated by the WTO that began in 2008 and resulted in Congress attaching the repeal in a last-minute $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill.
It was signed into law by President Obama, and mandatory labelling of origin country came to an end, to the ire of consumer rights groups.
A loss for consumers
Jean Halloran, the director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, a nonprofit organisation that champions consumer rights across a wide spectrum of industries, told Al Jazeera that the repeal of COOL was a “worrying development”.
“Recently, President Obama was speaking in support of his [Trans-Pacific Partnership] agreement, and he said these types of global trade agreements and organisations, like the WTO, would have no effect on our consumer protection. But in the case of the beef and pork industry, we just witnessed a huge blow to consumer protection,” Halloran explained.
Halloran worries that the WTO decision could set a dangerous precedent that would motivate other meat and produce-supplying nations to bring disputes against the US in order to further wear away at country of origin labels.
“It’s an important bellwether” for the future right to information of US consumers, and “certainly a worrying development”, Halloran concluded.
Thomas Gremillion, the director of food policy at the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), an association of nonprofit consumer organisations that was established in 1968 to advance consumer interest, shared similar concerns as Halloran.
He went further, saying the ruling subjugates “transparency to an unaccountable foreign tribunal’s cost-benefit analysis”.
Gremillion explained that the WTO had no protocols against conflict of interest when choosing arbiters and that the trade organisation was not accountable to American voters, 90 percent of whom favoured COOL in a 2013 survey conducted by CFA.
While the move might be making few waves now, “The next time there’s an outbreak of mad cow disease, or some new food safety crisis emerges in a foreign beef-supplying country, consumers will definitely feel the loss of COOL,” he said.
One of the groups that headed the opposition to COOL from the outset was the Texas Cattle Feeders Association (TCFA).
“We’re supportive of consumers’ right to know,” Ross Wilson, the TCFA’s president and chief executive, told Al Jazeera during an interview at its Amarillo headquarters.
Wilson said that there is no documentation showing that COOL incentivised the purchase of US beef, and points to a 2012 Kansas State University study that found “demand for covered meat products has not been impacted by COOL implementation”.
The United States Department of Agriculture still has safety protocols for imported meat, Wilson stressed.
Though TCFA lists several subsidiaries of Cargill, a multinational meat-packing corporation, as “industry associates”, Wilson said that big cattle money did not play a role in its position on COOL or its support for the US cattle industry.
“We represent between 25 and 30 percent of fed cattle produced in the US. It’s very much in our best interest to protect the people we represent.”
The TCFA president cited an example in which a cow could be born in Mexico, then brought to the US, where it would spend most of its life.
In spite of this, it would still be labelled as “Mexican”, meaning that COOL’s designation of US-only beef was unfair and needlessly expensive.
“TCFA drew the line because this was a system that brought no benefit and additional costs that consumers had to bear,” Wilson concluded.
Not Rocket Science
“COOL is entirely necessary for US cattle producers to compete against cattle producers around the world, and that’s obvious. It’s not rocket science,” Bill Bullard, the head of the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF USA), told Al Jazeera.
R-CALF USA, based in Montana, is “dedicated to ensuring the continued profitability and viability of the US cattle industry”, which represents thousands of cattle producers on both national and international trade issues.
Bullard applied a classic capitalist argument to the situation: “With COOL, consumers drive the competitive marketplace, and competition occurs. Without COOL, no competition occurs. Packers can unilaterally decide from what source the cattle comes, and sell it to the unsuspecting consumer.”
The R-CALF USA president is a rancher himself and fears that the repeal of COOL is an effort by multinational corporations that slaughter and package beef in the US to make domestic cattle “nothing more than a part of the international supply chain”.
“[Multinational corporations] and groups that advocate for them say that beef is beef, regardless of where it’s born … they want cheaper sources of livestock,” Bullard continued.
“If they can unilaterally decide where the meat comes from [based on economic profitability], and sell it to unsuspecting customers here, then how can the US beef industry continue?”
Follow Creede Newton on Twitter: @