This Label Will Raise the Cost of Your Steak. By Scott George and Randy Spronk
New meat regulations could spark a trade war with Canada and Mexico.
Wall Street Journal, Dec. 5, 2013 6:42 p.m. ET
Right before Thanksgiving, while Congress was on break, federal meat labeling regulations took effect that could result in Americans paying higher prices on everything from beef and pork to apples and maple syrup. While legislators, as part of the continuing farm bill negotiations, are considering a fix to the Country of Origin Labeling (Cool) statute, the regulations implementing it went into effect Nov. 23.
The new Cool rules require more detailed labels on meat derived from animals born outside the United States. Labels must now list the country in which livestock were born, raised and slaughtered. For example, a package of rib-eye steak might be labeled: "Born in Canada, Raised and Slaughtered in the United States."
The previous Cool rules required less detailed labeling, such as "Product of Canada and the United States." Ironically, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued the new rules in May in an effort to improve the previous Cool rules, which the World Trade Organization last year ruled discriminated against Canada, Mexico and other U.S. trading partners.
Not surprisingly, Canada and Mexico are also fighting the new, more stringent rules at the WTO. Should the trade organization rule in their favor, our North American neighbors will likely retaliate against U.S. products through tariffs that will limit U.S. exports and kill American jobs. Canada, the second-largest export market for U.S. agricultural products, valued in 2012 at $20.6 billion, already has a preliminary retaliation list that includes fresh pork and beef, bakery goods, rice, apples, wine, maple syrup and furniture.
U.S. cattle ranchers and hog farmers who purchase livestock from Canada or Mexico will be affected by those retaliatory tariffs in a number of ways. Most crucially to those of us in the industry, the duties will prompt U.S. beef and pork exports to fall while American farmers and ranchers who import animals will see significant cost increases.
Alpha 3 Cattle Company in Amarillo, Texas, for example, imports roughly 38,000 feeder cattle a year from Mexico. When the original Cool law took effect in 2009, meat packers, fearing consumers would be less inclined to buy meat labeled "Product of Mexico and the United States" and incurring added costs to label mixed-origin meat, discounted Alpha 3's Mexican-origin animals by $35 a head. That alone cost Alpha 3 more than $1 million.
Under the new Cool regulations, the company expects the discount to be even higher, or for packing plants to stop processing Mexican-born cattle altogether. Why? Because under the new regulations those animals—and the meat from them—now need to be tracked, verified and segregated from U.S.-born cattle. (The 2009 law allowed co-mingling of animals.)
A Michigan hog farmer who gets most of his feeder pigs from Canada, and who took a financial hit when the labeling law took effect in 2009, has been told by the packing plant to which he sends his animals that he'll have a 10-hour window each week to get his Canadian-born hogs to market. That will be nearly impossible to accomplish—it's 32 truckloads—and it will be extremely costly.
That's because the new regulations will force the packing plant to shut down the lines processing U.S.-born hogs and switch to processing Canadian-born ones—which spend five of their six months in the U.S.—so that pork cuts can be tracked, labeled and kept separate. That's a logistical headache and a huge expense for the plant, which will likely pay the hog farmer less for his Canadian-born hogs and charge consumers more for the meat from those animals.
So why is the U.S. risking trade retaliation and prohibitive cost increases on American producers and consumers of meat? Groups that support Cool, such as the U.S. Cattlemen's Association and the Consumer Federation of America, think U.S. consumers will buy American if they see a "Product of the United States" label. But since the 2009 law went into effect, the USDA says there's been little effect on demand for U.S. meat, and that consumers buy primarily based on taste and price. Most Americans know, even if their legislators don't, that all meat products, regardless of their country of origin, must pass the same USDA safety regulations.
When the Cool proposal was first debated in Congress, the U.S. meat industry said it would be a costly program with little if any benefit to consumers. The USDA estimated it would cost $2.5 billion to implement and nearly $212 million annually over 10 years to maintain.
With our North American neighbors set to impose tariffs on dozens of U.S. products, livestock producers and meat packers facing greater costs and American consumers ultimately bearing higher prices, it appears that assessment was an understatement.
Mr. George is a cattleman from Cody, Wyo., and president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Mr. Spronk is a hog farmer from Edgerton, Minn., and president of the National Pork Producers Council.