Where Does Your Meat Come From? Soon It’ll Be Hard to Know

By Annie Wu, Epoch Times
January 14, 2016 3:43 pm Last Updated: January 16, 2016 2:58 pm
After more than a decade of wrangling, Congress repealed a meat labeling law last month that required retailers to include the animal's country of origin on packages of pork and beef. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
After more than a decade of wrangling, Congress repealed a meat labeling law last month that required retailers to include the animal’s country of origin on packages of pork and beef. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

For those who care where their meat comes from, grocery shopping will likely get more frustrating in the days to come. Last month, Congress repealed a law requiring food retailers to place country-of-origin labeling on all beef and pork products.

Congress made the decision after a trade dispute emerged with Mexico and Canada. The two countries challenged the labeling law before the World Trade Organization, claiming that it discriminated against those countries’ meat products. The WTO ultimately ruled against the United States, authorizing Mexico and Canada to begin more than $1 billion in economic retaliation. To prevent those trade sanctions, Congress reversed the law.

Previously, all beef and pork products had labels indicating where the livestock was born, raised, and slaughtered. Now, it will be up to meat producers, grocery stores, and supermarkets to decide whether they want to provide that information to consumers.

The supply chain in large-scale commercial meat production is riddled with middlemen before reaching the consumer—including the ranches and farms where the animals are born, the feedlots where they are fattened, and the meat packers that process the meat.

Patty Lovera, assistant director at consumer advocacy group Food and Water Watch, explained that there’s a two-step process in order for sourcing information to get passed down to the consumer. “First, the meat packer has to give that information to the grocery store, then the grocery store has to give it to the consumer,” she said. If they choose to withhold that information, consumers will now be in the dark.

An additional problem is that currently both U.S. and imported meat products that have passed USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) inspection standards contain a USDA seal. Without the additional country-of-origin label to indicate the source, consumers might be misled into thinking an imported product with a USDA-inspected seal is a U.S. product.

Lovera believes the repeal puts the consumer at a disadvantage, because the power now lies with food retailers and meat producers to decide whether or not to provide sourcing information. “Every trend in the world of food is about transparency. People want to know the story of how their food got there. But now [they] won’t even tell you what country it’s from,” Lovera said.

Meanwhile, the repeal is a victory for the meat industry, which has challenged the labeling law in courts and through lobbying since the early 2000s, according to The Associated Press.

A grocery shopper at a Whole Foods Market in Manhattan, New York City. (Amal Chen/Epoch Times)
A grocery shopper at a Whole Foods Market in Manhattan, New York City. (Amal Chen/Epoch Times)

It remains to be seen which food retailers will voluntarily label their meat products. Epoch Times reached out to Whole Foods Market, one of the country’s largest food retailers, regarding the repeal. The company responded that it will continue to provide country-of-origin labeling on its products.

“Whole Foods Market believes in providing our customers with full transparency into the products they purchase from our stores. Country of Origin Labeling is one way of ensuring our customers know where their food comes from,” according to an email response from the company’s global headquarters communications department.

What if there’s no Whole Foods near you? Lovera’s advice to consumers is to try shopping at independent grocery stores and butcher shops, where the stores are more likely to know about their products’ source. “The shorter the supply chain, the more information you can get. The closer to the producing, the more you can ask questions. For example, places that do direct sales like a farmers’ market, or a CSA [community-supported agriculture] model.”

People shopping at the Union Square farmers' market in New York City. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
People shopping at the Union Square farmers’ market in New York City. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

At The Meat Hook, a butcher shop in Brooklyn, all the meats have a simple supply chain: from farm to the slaughterhouse to the shop.

Owner Ben Turley said he knows the farmers who raised the livestock, how old the animals were when they were slaughtered, where they were slaughtered, and how the meat was handled.

“By minimizing middlemen, we have better transparency, and the money you spend is not as diluted,” explained Turley. Because there are fewer people involved in the meat processing, more cents per dollar go directly to the farmers who are raising the animals, he said.

All of the meats at The Meat Hook come from animals raised in upstate New York farms. Turley thinks it’s possible that more people will turn to local shops as they seek more clarity on how their food got to the table.

“If you want to know exactly where your food comes from, you need to go to the smaller markets that know a lot in your local community, whether it’s the local butcher or vegetable stand,” he said.

Kelly Weikel, director of consumer insights at Technomic, a food industry research and consulting firm, said consumer pressure could eventually force more supermarkets to include sourcing information, similar to how consumers’ desire for organic food has prompted many conventional supermarkets to now offer organic products.

But ultimately, she does not foresee major shifts in people’s shopping habits as a result of the meat labeling repeal. “When you think about labeling, consumers like it, not so much because they read it and make decisions based on it, but because consumers feel it’s just their right to know—how the animals were raised, how the food got there,” Weikel said.

The subgroup of consumers who actually base their decisions on food labels is a small niche, compared to the majority who find labels “a nice-to-have, but not must-have,” she said.

In addition, the majority of grocery shoppers don’t have the financial means nor the physical access to shop daily at farmers markets and specialty shops, Weikel added.