PhotoThere’s a legal battle brewing in the meat-packing industry over proposed new country-of-origin labeling requirements. The Wall Street Journal notes that “Big U.S. meatpackers are appealing to Congress in a last-ditch effort to stave off new federal labeling rules that require more information about the origins of beef, pork and other meats.” The new rules are slated to take effect this Saturday.

If enforced, the labeling requirements will mandate that meat packaging identify the country or countries where the animal was born, raised and killed. Large meat-packing companies like Cargill and Tyson Foods oppose the new regulations, on the grounds that they impose “unnecessary” costs on the industry. However, the Journal reports, the new regulations enjoy the support not only of consumer groups, but also of U.S. beef ranchers.

No mystery why consumer groups would support labeling requirements maximizing consumer information; American beef ranchers doubtless support the mandate on the grounds that U.S. consumers might prefer all-American beef over that imported from a reputed-unsafe country such as China.

Not so simple

What makes labeling laws particularly tricky is that it’s not simply American interests (business or consumer) that must be considered; there are also World Trade Organization and other international requirements that must be met if America is to continue trading with the rest of the world. And it’s not just American meat packers who oppose the new labeling regulations; our trading partners Canada and Mexico do, too. Indeed, the Journal reports that Canada is even threatening to impose retaliatory tariffs on American imports, if the new regulations take effect.

The previous labeling requirements — perhaps we should say “The current labeling requirements, until the new rules kick in this Saturday” — have been in place since 2008, and under these rules, the catchall label “Product of Canada, the U.S. or Mexico” could apply to animals born in one of those countries, but slaughtered and packaged in another.

The new rules would require labels to make distinctions between the three countries, as necessary; U.S. meatpackers and their allies argue this would impose unnecessarily high costs. On the other hand, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed the new rules last spring, it did so in part to address World Trade Organization complaints that the previous labeling rules unfairly discriminated against Canada.

As of press time it appears the new labeling requirements will come into force this Saturday. How or if it will affect consumer meat prices remains to be seen.


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