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How Will mCOOL Shake Out? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Steve Dittmer   
Wednesday, 28 May 2008
AFF Sentinel Vol.5#25

Imagine you're an American meat shopper encountering two packages of steaks. Under "Country of Origin," the label lists "United States and Canada." The next package reads "Canada and United States."

Would most consumers differentiate between the two based on origin? Or will they shrug and move on to evaluating the steaks based on perceived tenderness and taste, on marbling and price - the factors consumers say in surveys are more important than origin?

Tougher question: would shopper behavior change if the label read, "United States, Canada and Mexico?"

Does the compromise language in the 2007-8 Farm Bill offer some hope of reducing industry cost; avoiding questions and damage to consumer confidence and disruptions in normal international trading? Is ground beef a totally different matter?

We haven't much experience with this kind of upheaval in a food industry the size, geographic scope and diversity of the beef and pork industries. Key consumer behavior questions need answers. If the only question was how consumers would react to labels with both the U.S. and Canada as origin, the projections would be easier.

But feedyards in the Southwest source Mexican feeder cattle. Will labels reading "United States, Canada and Mexico" get the same reaction from consumers as "United States and Canada" from national consumers? Could labels listing Mexico have a marketing advantage in certain U.S. regions and neighborhoods? Nationally, at least one major packer has heard some concern from retailers about consumer perceptions regarding Mexican origin.

Here's the law and some educated preliminary guesses as to the shake out. Remember, this language is the law, and the final effects will depend on how USDA-AMS regulations interpret the law. Proposed regs are expected in July.

This applies to retail beef, pork, lamb, poultry (late entry) and goat meat. It does not now apply to foodservice but the assumption is activists will strive for that.

Here are categories and definitions:

  • USA: born, raised and slaughtered in U.S.
  • Multiple Countries of Origin - retailer may designate country of origin as all of the countries in which animal may have been born raised and slaughtered if animal was:

(I) not exclusively born, raised & slaughtered in U.S.

(II) born, raised and slaughtered in U.S.

(III) not imported into U.S. for immediate slaughter

  • Imported for Immediate Slaughter

-if meat came from animal imported for slaughter, retailer shall designate the origin as the country of import and the U.S.

  • Foreign Country of Origin

-meat from animals not born, raised or slaughtered in U.S. shall list that foreign country as origin.

  • Ground Meat

-Shall include a list of all countries of origin or list of all reasonably possible countries of origin

What's the likely label assortment? If all we had to deal with was U.S. or Canadian cattle, here is what the labels could look like, in order of the categories defined above:

  • United States
  • United States & Canada
  • Canada & United States
  • Canada
  • United States, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, Uruguay

Those labels are for, in order:

  • U.S. only
  • Born U.S. or Canada, fed and slaughtered in U.S
  • Fed in Canada, U.S. slaughtered
  • Meat imported from Canada
  • Multiple Sources for ground beef raw material

It's a given the volume of verifiable U.S. born & raised cattle is insufficient to supply major and most regional retail chains, especially absent a national individual animal ID program.

To eliminate the costs of segregation and reduce mislabeling risk, most beef will end up in the "Multiple Country of Origin" category.

The impact on most consumers between meat labeled "United States and Canada" & meat labeled "Canada and United States" could be negligible. But we have little or no consumer behavior data to predict reaction to adding"Canada" or "Mexico" to the label. There is little time to field a survey much less run tests or pilot projects.

Roughly 90-95 percent of the muscle cuts in American meat counters is U.S. origin. The balance is Canadian bred and fed or Mexican bred. How subtle will consumers regard these differences?

Other factors? Retailers and packers will try to mitigate cost. Retailers will try to avoid the risk of a serious issue - mislabeling. Mislabeling affects their credibility with customers, creates bad publicity, fines and possible legal repercussions. This could foster more case ready beef to reduce possibilities for error by labeling origin closer to harvest.

Also important is most consumers' ignorance of USDA-equivalent inspection in other countries for all beef imported into the U.S.

Maybe the entire industry needs a big powwow to quickly begin brainstorming this seismic event.

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Last Updated ( Thursday, 03 July 2008 )
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