I had a great friend of mine out in the countryside the other day talking to a producer. I don’t know this producer from Adam, yet somehow “Adam” brought my name up in the conversation — not realizing that the woman knew more about my life than even the Boss Man and the Boss Man’s Wife — and proceeded to tell her my views on country-of-origin-labeling (COOL). As entertaining as it was to learn that I had a view on COOL, I don’t care to have my point of view being broadcasted if I haven’t vocalized them myself.
While I’ve been mum on the subject, there has been a certain cattle organization that has not, and my newsfeed the last month has been filled with articles. I am a firm advocate of freedom of speech, but at the end of the day, a person sometimes just needs to spray all the thistle.
I like the idea of COOL. I know exactly what animal I have in the freezer, and if another consumer wants to know the life story of the animal that’s gracing their family’s meal plates, that’s their decision. If someone wants to pay me more money for all that data and info that I collect every year on that animal they are eating, even better.
Maybe beef that is labeled “Product of the U.S.” might be a buying point for some, but I have also been to a country where I did not have one conversation with a citizen who wanted our product but instead deemed the meat that they could purchase off a blue tarp on the street as “safer and healthier.” I’m proud to be American, and “Made in the U.S.” means something to me, but what does the data say?
Data that come from a report generated by the USDA Office of the Chief Economist says that COOL does not provide much in “measurable economic benefits” to the consumer, and instead will cost the industry over $2 billion a year. Sure, data is important, but sometimes I really question what the government releases. So, what do consumers really think?
Well, I’m a consumer, and I’m on a very restricted doctor-ordered diet. I have to read the ingredient labels on everything. I went to the grocery store a couple days ago and didn’t realize until I wrote this column that I had purchased meat, vegetables, frozen foods and minimally processed foods. I read labels on everything that had one, but not once did I look to see what country anything came from. So, I guess, the question comes down to, “Do you?”
If the government data question whether the consumers will be willing to pay more, yet it costs the packers more money to implement line changes — and you know as well as I do that the packers won’t absorb all of that cost — just figure some will get passed down the supply chain. Don’t forget about the threatened WTO trade retaliations. I, for one, would not be happy if I saw a price increase on staples like ketchup and maple syrup. To top it off, I would be asked to do more paperwork that would put all producers on the same level — I studied economics in college, and when everyone is on the same level, prices rarely increase. Put all of that together and a “Product of the U.S.” label that I already personally don’t look at, doesn’t seem near as enticing to me.
I’ve travelled to six continents. I’ve toured packing plants for hogs, sheep and cattle in six different countries, including multiple ones in the United States. Our processing scenario is unique, as a large day in another country might be 500 head whereas in the U.S. it’s thousands-plus. I’ve visited plants in countries that have a national I.D. program, and while some cut out the EID right away, I’ve visited others that follow that whole animal through the fab floor and packaging. But of all the producers I’ve talked to in these countries, not one has said that they have seen any additional revenue from a traceability program.
So, what does a traceability program offer? In Santa Catarina, Brazil, I saw cattle being tagged with EIDs to signify the state being Foot and Mouth free. In New Zealand, the national ID program was utilized when an outbreak of m.bovis could have proved devastating. A disease outbreak is always a possibility in any country and having the ability to trace livestock could significantly reduce the catastrophe effects on producers.
Instead of emotional propaganda on a package label, maybe instead we need to rethink how a traceability program could protect us as producers. I, for one, wouldn’t be able to handle the devastating loss of an entire herd to a FMD outbreak. While I do shudder at any program that includes the word “mandatory,” for protection of my cow herd I could possibly consider it, because I remember producers who had visited our operation on a world cattle tour, and then hearing how those same producers lost their entire cow herds during the England BSE outbreak.
As a great friend of mine said from one of those countries, “nope, no increase in price, however it is a nice story to tell buyers.” That’s exactly right, and for those of us that are already using that story we have seen an increase in price because it’s a niche that we have pursued, but if it’s required by all producers that niche quickly goes away, as does Jerry Maquire’s ‘Show me the money!’
If you can show me that there won’t be cost passed down to the producer, trade retaliations, consumers who will flock to package labeling, and an increase in income for me and my family, I’ll be there with my cowbell on — we aren’t there yet.
Jaclyn Wilson is more than a rancher, raising Red Angus cattle at Wilson Ranch near Lakeside, Neb. She’s an artist with a welder’s torch. She holds leadership positions with several agriculture organizations. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org