The coincidence was positively delicious.
Shortly after Swedish furniture seller Ikea found itself, shall we say, saddle deep in a saucy mess that featured racier red meat in its Swedish meatballs than you’d normally get from the average European cow, the USDA announced changes to its controversial country-of-origin labelling, or COOL, law for American meat.
The two events have more in common than a matched team of plow horses.
Ikea’s woes began in late February when a horsemeat-in-lasagna scandal raced across Britain. It soon galloped (sorry) into Ireland, Poland, France and, later, Sweden. Shortly thereafter, a Czech lab found horse DNA in a bag of IKEA’s frozen meatballs.
So far, the source of the Secretariat — ah, Swedish — meatballs has not been found and, probably, won’t because, at present, only whole muscle cuts of meats must be identified by country of origin while processed meats do not.
But why on earth would food-centric Europeans even buy meatballs at a furniture store? For the same reason Americans buy pizza and burritos at a gas station — it’s cheap and convenient.
Just as the European horsemeat scandal was (I just can’t help it) being put out to pasture, the USDA took another crack at writing the rules to implement COOL, the 11-year-old law that’s supposed to inform consumers on the origin of their meat, fish and poultry.
Supposed to but never really did because Big Ag and Big Agbiz called in congressional markers to ensure it was delayed, watered down, then challenged as protectionist. Last May, the World Trade Organization obliged and tossed COOL.
Big Ag’s big beef?
Their price-flattening, cross-border flow of livestock, chiefly cattle, they claimed, was far more important to them and international trade than knowing if the hamburger on your grill comes from Nebraska or Nicaragua.
The new USDA rules, which it believes are in “compliance with U.S. international trade obligations,” are simple. They refocus the old WTO-violating “Product of the U.S.” label to a more exact “Born, Raised and Slaughtered in the United States.”
If, for example, the meat is from an animal born in Canada, then fed and slaughtered in the U.S., the new label will read “Born in Canada, Raised and Slaughtered in the United States.”
It’s clear, precise information U.S. consumers have overwhelmingly said they want and need. Most U.S. livestock farmers want it, too, because all want their homegrown product identified at home, the richest, most competitive food market in the world.
Meat packers and their “lackeys” — a word often used by Republican Senator Charles Grassley to describe commodity groups like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association who have fought COOL — hate it because, they explain, COOL unfairly targets imports as inferior. That claim, however, also serves to disguise a key benefit of not labelling, the international movement of price-affecting livestock and meat.
Canada and Mexico also hate COOL because it limits their exports (mostly cattle) to the U.S.
USDA trade data, however, shows otherwise. The total number of cattle collectively exported from Mexico and Canada to the U.S. from 2008, when COOL finally was implemented, to 2012, when it was declared protectionist, was 2.2 million head, 2.0 million, 2.3 million, 2.1 million and 2.6 million, respectively.
If that’s protectionism, then we’re all a bunch of meatballs — Angus or Appaloosa — when it comes to international trade because facts simply do not matter.