The coincidence was positively delicious.
Shortly after Swedish furniture seller Ikea found itself, shall we say, saddle-deep in a saucy mess that featured racier red meat in its Swedish meatballs than you’d normally get from the average European cow, the USDA announced changes to its controversial Country of Origin Labeling, or COOL, law for American meat.
The two events have more in common than a matched team of plow horses.
Ikea’s woes began in late February when a horse-meat-in-lasagna scandal raced across Britain. It soon galloped (sorry) into Ireland, Poland, France and, later, Sweden. Shortly thereafter, a lab in the Czech Republic found horse DNA in a bag of the frozen meatballs that Ikea, famously, sells at its big blue stores throughout Europe.
So far, the source of the Secretariat meatballs, ah, Swedish meatballs, has not been found and, probably, won’t. By law, whole muscle cuts of meats in the European Union must be identified by country of origin while processed meats do not.
In all likelihood that wide-open barn door (ugh) will be closed soon across the 27-nation EU. Why on earth would food-centric Europeans even buy meatballs at a furniture store? For the same reason Americans buy pizza and burritos at a gas station – it’s cheap, convenient and it’s pizza and burritos, right?
Maybe, and maybe that’s also why most of us still pray before we eat, commented one New York Times’ reader in response to a March 9 column on the Norse horse farce: we’re praying that what’s on our fork actually is what we think it is.
Just as the European horse meat scandal was (I just can’t help it) being put out to pasture, USDA took another crack at writing the rules to implement COOL, the now 11-year-old law that was supposed to inform consumers on the origin of the meat, fish and poultry they buy.
Supposed to but never really did because Big Ag and Big Agbiz called in Congressional markers to ensure it was delayed, watered down, then challenged as protectionist. Last May the World Trade Organization obliged; it tossed COOL.
Big Ag’s big beef? Their price-flattening, cross-border flow of livestock, chiefly cattle, they claimed, was far more important to them and international trade than you knowing if the hamburger on your grill came from Nebraska or Nicaragua.
The new USDA rules, which it believes are in “compliance with U.S. international trade obligations,” are simple. They refocus the old WTO-violating “Product of the U.S” label to a more exact “Born, Raised and Slaughtered in the United States.” If, for example, the meat is from an animal born in Canada, then fed and slaughtered in the United States, the new label will read “Born in Canada, Raised and Slaughtered in the United States.”
It’s clear, precise information U.S. consumers have overwhelmingly said they want and need. Most U.S. livestock farmers want it; too, because all want their homegrown product identified at home, the richest, most competitive food market in the world. Meatpackers and their “lackeys” – a word often used by U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, to describe commodity groups like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Assoc. who have fought COOL – hate it because, they explain, COOL unfairly targets imports as inferior.
That claim, however, also serves to disguise a key benefit of not labeling, the international movement of price-affecting livestock and meat. Canada and Mexico also hate COOL. Both say it limits their exports (mostly cattle) to the United States.
USDA trade data, however, shows otherwise. The total number of cattle collectively exported from Mexico and Canada to the United States from 2008, when COOL finally was implemented, to 2012, when it was declared protectionist, was 2.2 million head, 2 million, 2.3 million, 2.1 million and 2.6 million, respectively.
If that’s protectionism then we’re all a bunch of meatballs – Angus or Appaloosa – when it comes to international trade because facts simply do not matter.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of Farm World. Readers with questions or comments for Alan Guebert may write to him in care of this publication.