American meat processors were never fully enthusiastic about the Country of Origin Labeling law (COOL), and when the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled it violated trade agreements, they were quick to advocate its repeal.
In June North American Meat Institute CEO Barry Carpenter was among those urging the U.S. Senate to repeal the law, which requires labels on fresh meat to inform consumers where the animals had been raised and slaughtered.
But repealing COOL might ultimately work against the U.S. meat industry, according to marketing researchers at the University of Arkansas.
Consumers, they say, want to know where meat came from and they would actually prefer to purchase U.S. meat.
Researchers found that consumers preferred meat from the United States when provided only with information about where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered – and not given information about country-specific meat-processing standards.
Direct and indirect effects
“The country-of-origin requirement appears to provide consumers with additional information that has both direct and indirect effects on purchase intentions,” said Scot Burton, a professor of marketing. “The requirement impacts inferred attributes, meaning that meat products from the United States are perceived to be safer, tastier and fresher than meat products from Mexico. Of course, these attributes, in turn, have positive effects on purchase decisions.”
Burton and his colleagues reviewed 3 studies to arrive at their conclusion. In 2 of the 3 studies consumers, when given a choice, preferred meat from the United States.
Congress passed COOL in the 2002 Farm Bill and expanded it in 2008. It requires U.S. retailers to provide country-of-origin labeling for most meat and poultry products.
The law also requires meat labels to identify the country where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered. The legislation had the backing of farmers and ranchers who raise the livestock but not so much the meat packers, who are responsible for applying the labeling.
COOL support from cattle country
In a blistering editorial over the weekend, the Rapid City Journal, a newspaper covering much of South Dakota's cattle country, took Congress to task for rushing to consider a repeal of COOL, or to make it a voluntary program.
“Voluntary COOL failed because big meatpackers don’t want to disclose the origins of meat,” the newspaper wrote. “In 2013, they sued the USDA claiming that COOL violated their First Amendment free speech rights by forcing them to provide COOL labels against their will. Our federal courts repeatedly rejected their claims.”
Consumer groups, who were in the forefront of lobbying efforts on behalf of COOL, are also among those urging lawmakers not to repeal it. A coalition of 283 farm, rural, consumer, manufacturer, labor, faith and environmental groups from across the U.S. issued a statement last month, calling for Congress to refrain from repealing the consumer legislation.
“If Congress repeals COOL, then the next time consumers go shopping for a steak or chicken for their families, they won’t be able to tell where that product came from,” said Chris Waldrop, Director of the Food Policy Institute at Consumer Federation of America. “That's completely unacceptable. Consumers want more information about their food, not less.”
The House of Representatives quickly approved a repeal of COOL in late May. Similar legislation is now before the U.S. Senate.