I don’t have a joke to start this one off with, and I apologize in advance for all of the conjecture that follows, dear reader. It would seem that right under our very noses a “trade war” has been brewing in the storm clouds in the distance; a dark and sinister one that threatens to destroy the very fabric of our meat economy…
Alright, so I tried, but I can’t keep this smile down. Apparently what is going on is that last year Congress passed a bill that would force meat-packers to actually indicate where the meat came from. See, before the label would read something like “Product of the US” and the consumer would just assume that the rib-eye they were about shovel into their gullet was born and bred in the good U.S. of A. Unbeknownst to the poor, unwary, “soon-to-be-victim”, that rib-eye was actually born in Canada, and then carted over to the United States to be raised and slaughtered.
The old label laws left a loophole that allowed the packing company to be vague about the specific origins of their stock, as they only had to be labeled as “products” of the United States if they were butchered and sold within the borders. While there is nothing inherently insidious about this practice, when bad things happen and someone gets “Foot and Mouth Disease” from a cut of God Knows Where bred beef that was killed in the U.S.A. (and therefore under the old laws there needn’t be any label indicating where specifically it came from), certain consumer advocacy groups believe that the customer has the right to know exactly where their meat existed from birth to bought.
The issue that we find, and that opponents of the bill are trying to make known as loudly as they can, is that keeping such close tabs on the livestock drives up cost while bogging down productivity. Since we import a lot of our meat from other countries, this would require that companies that lay outside of our borders who wish to do business with us would have to adhere to these new label laws as well. Responses from Canadian officials, being the more vocal of the collective (closely followed by Mexico), have already threatened to enter into a “trade war” with the United States, stating that they will impose tariffs on American products and goods if the label laws are not reverted back soon.
Personally, and I apologize because this is where it may get opinion heavy. I feel I can see and understand both sides of this argument on the issue. Having been at the receiving end of some bad pork on more than one occasion myself, I can definitely see where the idea of having more in-depth information immediately at your fingertips can be a good thing. I for one am a huge proponent of the “tell the customer everything” mentality which is so rarely found in current business practices today.
The entire meat-conomy (too good to never use again) basically only exists because of how well streamlined it is. You can watch documentary after documentary showcasing the truly horrific ways animals are treated in these environments, but the truth remains evident: for what it is doing, the meat-conomy is incredibly efficient. The end goal of those companies is to put pork, beef, chicken, and occasionally ammonia in your stomach, and the demand is so terrifyingly large that the only way to keep up was to create the monster we (I) call the meat-conomy. This machine was created, and we as the consumers nursed its creation.
Making any sudden change to the corporate practices of such a system is bound to cause abrupt complications in the established “flow” of business. The “trade war” that is being threatened, as I’ve already described, is a result of Canadian officials declaring that the added overhead cost of tracking each individual animal is causing estimated losses up to “one billion dollars” per year. The cited reasoning is that the additional cost of keeping track of every single head causes a superfluous amount of “busy work”, forcing the company to spend additional amounts on more manpower, and filing systems.
Our own American-based companies are stating that the expectations are “ridiculous”, indicating that a majority of the farms near the border (both Mexican and Canadian) work hand-in-hand with farms just outside of our nation’s area of control. Often times, in order to “keep good genetics,” companies will “loan out” breeder animals to the farms that lay just across the curtain. Lobbyists against the new label laws state that even though these animals are being bred using the same bulls that breed an “American” product, the companies behind are still expected to keep close track of where every single animal is born; a ruling which many in the industry feel means well, but isn’t realistic due to the amount of product being created and tracked.
Understanding that every country has different laws on how their specific industry works (and that companies that fall within the boundaries of these laws have established their projections based on them and how they impact overhead) helps shed light on the issue that one isn’t likely to find from reading reports from the pro-law advocacy groups.
By making these changes mandatory, Congress has effectively dictated that if a company wants to do business with us in this market they have to adhere by our new rules. This means that foreign companies that have entered into set contracts with American ones are going to have to drastically adjust their business to comply not with their laws, but with ours. When you have thousands of people stretched across three nations (Canada, Mexico, and us) who rely on this industry for their livelihood, it’s easy to understand why companies that lay outside of our own borders may take issue with these changes and the increased cost it forces them to incur.
So what’s the latest news on this issue? Well, the U.S. Circuit Court ruled for the bill in July, saying that consumers have a right to know where their food is coming from. However, now the World Trade Organization (WTO) has given its final report and is expected to oppose the new bill in favor of Mexico and Canada.
What would have happened if the industry advocacy groups did not get the bill over-turned and the old label laws put back in place? Well, the one thing that would have impacted consumers most:
Meat would get more expensive, then cheaper, and then more expensive fairly quickly.
Some industry experts believe this could have broken the established market as we know it. More overhead cost means a more expensive product, which in this economy means less demand. Less demand means a surplus of product (although, since it’s a perishable one a surplus can only last for so long); cutbacks in budget could lose quite a few people their jobs, and the extra investment of both time and funds would drive the cost of the product back up.
Once the WTO’s official report is made public, and it should be coming out this month, the U.S. has 60 days to appeal the decision. So keep your eyes peeled for what’s happening in the next few weeks.
Also, do yourself a favor and read the literature from both sides of this debate; all parties involved have surprisingly eloquent retorts to each other, and ultimately I feel like consumer involvement is going to dictate whether our meat-conomy operates “business as usual”, or falls apart at the seams.
Thanks for reading!
About the Author:
Damien Marty once tried to be a pioneer in domesticated Yellow Jackets; now he and his horrifically swollen face sit at home and write informative articles about food and science, other other fascinating topics. If you ever need a helping hand with a hard-to-remember factoid, or are interested in having him (terribly) sing at your doorstep, simply yell loudly out your window and he'll be there when he can.