Where’s The Beef From? Starting Saturday, Meat Labels Will Have To Tell You

Nov 25, 2013

Meat-eating grocery shoppers will see something new starting this Saturday: A label that includes the location of where the meat they’re buying was born, raised and slaughtered.

It has been a bumpy road to implementation since a law was passed in the US regarding meat labeling in 2002. Supporters of origin labeling include consumer groups who pushed a “right to know” argument and some farmers who argued that labeling would increase the demand for American meat.

“One of the ways a lot of processors have handled this challenge is that they’ve decided to just source meat from a certain location,” Jayson Lusk, professor of agricultural economics at Oklahoma State University, told Steve Scher on KUOW’s The Record.

But Lusk noted that in reality, there is no safety benefit to the labeling law, because it identifies origin without increasing the actual traceability of meat products. A steer born in Canada isn’t necessarily better to eat than one born in Montana, Lusk said.

That’s why Mexico and Canada pushed back against the law. The two countries took their case to the World Trade Organization, citing an unfair trade advantage. The WTO agreed and ruled that if the US did not change the way the law was handled, Mexico and Canada could impose retaliatory trade tariffs on other products – not just meat.

The US Department of Agriculture hopes that the way the law is being implemented will comply with the WTO's ruling, but the law will still need to be played out in courts.

At the local market, customers may end up paying more for their meat because of the labeling law.

“The onus of implementing this thing is on the processors and retailers, but of course they’re not going to just sit on those costs: They’re going to past some of those along to the consumer,” Lusk said.

If there were an economic advantage to labeling, Lusk believes that processors and retailers, large chains like Kroger and Wal-Mart, would have jumped on board with it sooner. “That seems to suggest to me that even though consumers say they want it, when the wallet hits the road they’re not actually willing to pay for it,” he said.

Produced for the Web by Kara McDermott.