Tester: Shoppers should know where food comes from

Billings Gazette

by Tom Lutey

The World Trade Organization is crying foul over U.S. efforts to identify where America’s food comes from, but Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and others are asking the federal government to stand its ground.

Tester, who four years ago led the charge for country-of-origin labeling for meat, joined other lawmakers Thursday in calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Trade Representative to keep labeling in place.

Known as COOL, country-of-origin labeling requires that meat, vegetables and seafood display the label of the country from which it originated so consumers know whether they’re buying American.

The World Trade Organization, which establishes fair-trade rules for its members, is siding with Canada and Mexico, which earlier complained that COOL suppressed the free sale of meat from those countries.

However, the WTO concluded it was the way COOL was done, not the labeling in general that’s the issue. The federal government must now come up with a new way to label its meat.

“I still think it’s really important that we know where our food’s coming from and we’re giving consumers that choice,” Tester told the Billings Gazette.

In the meat industry, opinions are split over the merits of COOL.

U.S. meatpackers have balked at having to differentiate between steaks from cattle raised in the United States and those raised in Canada or Mexico. The labeling takes time, and time is money in the slaughterhouse.

Groups like the National Farmers Union support COOL on the same grounds as Tester, that consumers should know whether the food they buy is raised elsewhere.

The COOL policy came about after mad-cow disease was discovered in Canadian cattle, though COOL supporters are careful not to say foreign meat or vegetables from other countries are subpar or less healthy.

The USDA Economic Research Service studied sales of foreign and domestic shrimp by American shoppers before and after COOL and concluded that price, not country of origin, determined what shrimp U.S. shoppers bought.

Tester said because sea life migrates globally, it probably didn’t matter as much to consumers where shrimp were harvested. But beef is different, he said. Americans know that cattle in the United States are raised a certain way. A label identifying beef as American is worthwhile, he said.