Even as mandatory country of origin labeling, or COOL, marked its four-year anniversary last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was facing a deadline later this month to bring the system into compliance with mandates of the World Trade Organization. Those new requirements, spurred by unfair trade allegations from Canada and Mexico, would require meats to specify not only where the product was produced, but where the animal it originated was born, where it was raised and where it was processed. If WTO gets its way, even meat from this country would be required to carry a label stating it was born, raised and processed in the United States--a simple "Product of the U.S.A." would no longer suffice.
It's just further example of the additional cost the 4-year-old labeling requirement adds to products, say critics of the measure. But, based on arguments by proponents that consumers have a right to know what country their food came from, and they would happily pay to obtain that information, it was hoped COOL labeling would increase the price they would be willing to pay for U.S. meat products.
A group of ag economics researchers from Kansas State University used several consumer research methods to guage the impact, including transaction data of meat purchases at grocery stores, as well as experimental economics methods involving in-store and online surveys, along with real -money experiments with consumers. They found:
Across a series of demand system models estimated using retail grocery scanner data of COOL-covered products, changes in consumer demand following implementation were not detected. The study's conclusions held true across all meats and products evaluated. Demand-system, as well as in-person and online assessments obtained the same conclusions whether evaluating beef steak, pork chop, or chicken breast products; there was no change in demand following implementation of COOL for beef, pork or chicken products.
In an online survey, 23 percent of respondents were aware of COOL, but 12 percent incorrectly believed wasn't mandated by law and nearly two-thirds of respondents didn't know whether COOL was or wasn't required by law. Similarly, the majority of in - person experiment participants did not know whether COOL was in place , despite the fact that they were standing near a retail meat counter. Furthermore, the majority of in - person participants also stated they never look for origin information when shopping for fresh beef or pork products.
In both online and in-person assessments, research participants regularly select meat products carrying origin information over unlabeled alternatives, a finding consistent with previous research. However, in an online assessment, consumers valued meat products labeled “Product of North America” to be approximately the same as “Product of United States."
What should we have learned from the COOL experience, according to the Kansas State researchers?
Following in the footsteps of neighboring Missouri and Colorado state legislatures, which have introduced state bills that would require all food that is a product of GMO technology sold in the state to be labeled as such, at least two U.S. congressmen have announced support for similar legislation at a national level. Several other states that have introduced such legislation in order to, according to supporters of the measure, “…give consumers the freedom to choose between GMOs and conventional products.”
Who can be against consumer choice? You may be, once you find out what GMO labeling really entails, and what it ultimately means (and doesn’t mean). Here are six good reasons to think hard about supporting mandatory GMO food labeling.
Is it or isn’t it? Like the spongy label claim of “natural,” the definition of “genetically modified” can be subject to the eye of the beholder. Strictly speaking, nearly every modern food item you stock today has been genetically modified from its original plant or animal ancestors—a scientific and often highly technological practice that plant and animal breeders have refined for millennia. Opponents of making those improvements through modern techniques, in an attempt to draw a bright line at the laboratory door, use equally vague terms like “biotechnology” and “natural means” that ignore the quite unnatural but non-GMO technologies that support the natural acts of animal and plant breeding—from physically removing the male parts of corn plants in order to force cross-pollination between varieties, to chemically washing the semen of dairy cattle in order to increase the percentage of (more valuable) female cattle born.
Then, atop that confusion add the dimension of animal products. First, if animals are not genetically modified themselves, but only the natural offspring of genetically modified breeding stock, are those animals to be defined as GMO? It’s unclear from a careful reading of most state bills whether they would or wouldn’t be considered so. Second, what of non-GMO animals that are fed GMO feeds? Would they become what they eat, forcing them to labeled as GMO? In the case of organic, for instance, feeding an organic cow non-organic feed renders the milk and meat non-organic; would the same be true of GMO?
Though it may eventually be possible to precisely define what biotechnology is and is not, translating those precise terms into a meaningful two- or three-word label claim becomes an exercise not in clarity, but in confusion.
Wouldn't it be easier to label what’s not GMO? Biotech crops have now been cultivated for more than 15 years, providing food for millions of people over the course of those years. In the United States, according to the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which represents biotech companies, 88 percent of corn, 94 percent of soybeans and 90 percent of cotton are now biotech varieties. And because corn and soybean meal are the No.1 and No. 2 ingredients in livestock feed, it follows that the majority of beef, pork, poultry, eggs and milk are now fed biotech crops. Putting aside the obvious questions (see below) of the practicality of teasing apart the two food streams from one another in order to label them, the real question remains of what would be unlabeled at the end of the day. In fact, many biotech advocates argue this is the end game of mandatory labeling--to simply remind consumers how pervasive the technology has become, and to make more-lucrative non-GMO niche foods stand out in bright contrast. "If labeling is allowed, poorly informed critics of genetically enhanced foods would use it to demonize by labeling,” Roger Beachy, a biotechnology pioneer told the Nebraska Governors Ag Conference in Kearney in early February.
Where do you stop? It’s easy to argue “consumers want to know if they’re buying GMO.” Numerous polls, in fact, find consumers say they want GMO products labeled—up to almost nine in 10, according to a recent CBS/New York Times poll. But the obvious follow-up question that’s never asked is the more important one: “What do you want the label to tell you about GMO?” The typical consumer doesn’t even know enough about what they don’t know about GMO to ask the question, a reality that explains the trend you see in which consumer support for labeling goes down the more they learn about biotechnology.
As long as consumers hear unchallenged assertions in the media that GMO is unsafe and high-risk (which it categorically is not, at least according to National Research Council of the National Academies of Science, the American Medical Association, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization), then pro-labeling surveys like the CBS/Times one might just as well ask consumers, “Do you want your food labeled “Safe” vs. “Unsafe?” In that sense, it’s a wonder the portion demanding labeling is only nine in 10. However, if you concur with the scientific authorities that biotechnology is safe--that it’s no indication of food safety-- then the pressing question becomes: What’s the real reason consumers need to be given a choice between GMO and non-GMO? It opens up the proverbial Pandora’s box of what safe-but-potentially-objectionable food trait should be labeled next. Irrigated crops vs. non-irrigated (no difference in safety, but could withdraw water from the environment)? Hand-picked vs. machine-picked (no difference in safety, but could be encouraging illegal immigration)? Small farm vs. large (no difference in safety, but could be encouraging corporate consolidation of farming)? Patented seed technology vs. heirloom? You may argue a portion of your consumers want to know each of those, but you’d likely not support the law to mandate it.
Should the state be supporting marketing puffery? Granted, biotech seed and animal companies oppose GMO labeling because they’ve invested billions in research and development of the products that come from them—a fact often “exposed” by advocates for mandatory labeling. But an equally inconvenient truth that seldom gets exposed to sunlight by lazy media reporting is the fact that most labeling initiatives are underwritten by the country’s organic and natural-foods industry. Whether their underlying objection to biotech foods is genuine or not, there’s no denying they would enjoy a market windfall should the government officially sanction their product lines by proxy by requiring their competition to put a label on their products that has been associated—by them—with questionable food safety.
Do we want to needlessly, and painfully, divide the distribution channels? If you thought COOL labeling was a headache, you haven’t seen the first of it should GMO labeling see fruition. State-by-state adoption, as appears to be the strategy of GMO opponents, would require the system set up two markets—a state-wide market only and then one for the rest of the country. And even if GMO labeling were adopted on a national scale, pulling apart the two systems would create the costs, headaches and product shortages that have plagued the organic system—only on a huge scale.
Doesn't this just take us further down the road of compounding apparent confusion and undue fear? Which is to say, confusion in the system, not the consumer, that is. Trust is already falling in the world’s food system, and despite labeling proponents’ claims they’re only giving consumers information they need to improve that trust, experience demonstrates the opposite is bound to occur. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration considers biotech foods to be substantially equivalent to non-biotech foods, and likely will continue to do so until good science counsels otherwise. Inviting the credibility fiasco that is the rbST-milk labeling issue (“From cows not treated with rbST, but there’s no significant difference shown between milk derived from rbST-treated and non-rbST-treated cows”), or the hormone-free chicken chicanery (growth hormone use has been illegal in U.S. chickens four nearly four decades), on nearly ever food package is a recipe for diminished faith in food, not strengthened. The food regulatory system is backing itself into a corner in which, by trying to appease one small but vocal segment in the name of “consumer choice,” it leaves itself less room to validly object to doing it for the next special interest that comes complaining. New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman, GMO-labeling advocate though he is, accidentally gets it right when he shrilly points out the very contradiction he’s agitating for: “…when feed corn is contaminated by [GMO] ethanol corn, the products produced from it won’t be organic. (On the one hand, USDA. joins the FDA in not seeing GE foods as materially different; on the other it limits the amount found in organic foods. Hello? Guys? Could you at least pretend to be consistent?)” Exactly right, Mark: Consistently wrong is still wrong.
When egg farmers first moved into caged housing in the '50s and '60s, it was such a benefit to the system that some companies actually promoted the fact they caged their hens. Today, the designation has become a black mark on the U.S. system which animal-rights activists hope to eliminate. One suggested solution: Force egg farmers to return to labeling eggs as from caged hens.
Breaking News: It's back. Legislation that will mandate almost all eggs bear the label “from caged hens” coming back to Congress
Federal laying-hen legislation brokered by the country's egg-producer association and the animal-rights group Humane Society of the United States will be re-introduced in Congress by Oregan Congressman Kurt Schrader within the next 30 days, sources report. Although the final language of the legislation hasn't been made public yet, it's expected that labeling provisions will remain the same as a nearly identical bill by Schrader that stalled in the last Congress. That bill would have mandated that eggs be labeled to describe the type of housing the hens were raised in within as soon as a year after passage of the bill.
Those amendments to the federal Egg Products Inspection Act, a highly publicized compromise between the HSUS, a $160 million per year Washington animal-rights group, and the Georgia-based United Egg Producers, calls for the mandatory egg labeling during the 18-year period American egg farmers would be granted to move away from traditional "battery cage" hen housing. The bill calls for eventual replacement of the conventional cages used in more than 90 percent of egg production. It will mandate instead confinement that permits hens roughly double the current voluntary standard space, along with perches, nesting boxes and scratching areas that allow hens to express natural behaviors. It would also set out certain care standards ranging from ammonia levels in barns to how to put non-viable birds out of their misery, and would prohibit anyone from selling eggs that don’t meet the standards. Estimates have predicted the legislation would require anywhere from $4 billion to $10 billion in industry investment. Egg producers will have up to 18 years to transition to the new systems once legislation passes.
But virtually unnoticed in debates over last year's bill is a requirement that all eggs sold at retail in the United States must be labeled with specific information on the housing system under which those eggs were produced. If history is any indication, the label terms will cause a new wave of consumer concerns, as the labels pull back the cover on previously unexamined aspects of how eggs are grown and hens are cared for. Beginning just one year after enactment of the amendments, anyone buying, selling or transporting eggs in packages not containing “adequate housing-related labeling” would be in violation of the law. The legislation carefully defines “adequate,” and a careful reading of the language of the legislation shows that until the Secretar of Agriculture specifies exactly what is meant by the term "enriched housing," it will be impossible to label eggs in any manner other than free-range, cage-free, or “eggs from caged hens.” Because free-range and cage-free represent only a fraction of U.S. eggs marketed, the practical consequence of the legislation will be that the majority of eggs in your dairy case will be stamped with less-than-favorable “eggs from caged hens”—likely for years.
Does that mandate have potential to turn consumers away from the majority of eggs? The United Egg Producers doesn't believe so. "We have always been committed to consumer choice and having farmers provide whatever type of eggs consumers want to buy," said spokesman Chad Gregory, President of UEP. "Typically, eggs that come from conventional cages are half-price of cage-free or free-range eggs, according to USDA statistics. So consumers will still have the choice, depending on their personal preference and ability to pay."
In an effort to stave off criticism the compromise legislation took from other farm commodity groups last year, Schrader will also insert language into the new bill that makes explicit that the housing requirements in the legislation only apply to commercial egg production and will not apply to the production of pork, beef, turkey, dairy, broiler chicken, veal, or other livestock or poultry.
That provision is not likely to satisfy either the National Pork Producers or the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, both of which publicly critized last year's proposed legislation.
"NPPC does not oppose what the bill does – increase the size of laying-hen cages," the group's spokesman told Farmer Goes to Market. "It opposes the fact that it would allow the federal government to dictate on-farm production practices. It codifies that power in federal legislation."
NCBA agrees. "Legislation like the HSUS/UEP proposal represents unprecedented government oversight of production practices, and cattlemen and women rightfully oppose it in any form."
Members of Nebraska's cattle farmer's association approved a resolution at their recent annual meeting in Kearney calling for a farmer referendum to vote on whether to impose a state-specific "beef checkoff" on the state's cattle farmers.
A checkoff is a self-imposed tax in which commodity groups ask legislators' permission to tax some portion of all farmers' sales of a particular commodity. Those funds are then typically used to pay for promotion, research and new product development, aimed at increasing domestic and international demand for the crops. Although the ultimate purpose of the checkoff is to improve the profitibality of farmers as a group, checkoffs also help to support retailer's sales, as well, since most promotion helps sell beef either at retail or at food-service, both directly in terms of retailer support programs that sell beef in store, and indirectly, through consumer advertising and promotion that draw consumers into stores.
The national beef checkoff is collected by qualified state beef councils, which keep up to 50 cents of every dollar collected in the state. The state councils forward the other 50 cents per head to the national Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board, which oversees the national checkoff program, subject to USDA review.
In Nebraska, a working group has now come together to discuss the idea of supplementing that national beef checkoff with a state-based beef checkoff program. The group released a white paper with preliminary recommendations and is now conducting a series of meetings with the state's farmers to get feedback on the idea before presenting it to the legislature for enabling legislation.
Rancher Dave Hamilton, of Thedford, who chaired the special checkoff task force for the association, said three factors have led the state's cattle farmers to call for a checkoff beyond the one currently at the national level.
Seven other states currently have their own state checkoff, Hamilton said, and a state-level checkoff should allow Nebraska to meet promotion needs without having to go through the laborious process that increasing the checkoff rate at a national level would likely entail.
If the state program raised the $5 million to $6 million Hamilton projects, it would more than double the approximately $4 million in promotional funds Nebraska now keeps from the national program. However, it’s important to note not all the funds would be apportioned for Nebraska; in fact, not even the lion’s share, according to Hamilton. Rather, they would be used to target distant markets for Nebraska beef.
Nebraska Cattlemen will work with other beef organizations to conduct a series of a minimum of nine producer input meetings to further refine the recommendations. Upon approval of the majority of Nebraska beef producers, legislation will be sought to implement the plan.
Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency denied requests filed by several state governors and associations that the agency relax its demands requiring fuels contain a minimum percentage of ethanol made from corn. The regulations require about 13 billion gallons of ethanol be produced this year; about 15 billion gallons by 2015. Livestock and poultry farmers, who rely primarily on corn for feed, say it's caused devastating increases in their production costs.
Last summer’s severe drought has put a huge bite into corn production at a time when the storage stocks are low, even as domestic and international demand continues to grow. As a result, corn prices increased to record levels of more than $8 per bushel—that’s more than four times more expensive than prices a decade ago. Because corn is a necessary and often irreplaceable ingredient in the feed used by beef, dairy, milk and poultry farmers, many of those farmers’ trade groups backed the call to waive the minimum fuel requirement.
But would waiving the requirement really have made a difference? Three economists from Purdue University reported their findings of an economic analysis of that question in August. Their results showed that a waiver of the RFS could, under certain conditions, reduce the demand for corn and, thus, corn prices for livestock producers and other non-ethanol corn buyers. Depending on the scenario, the reduction ranged from zero to as high as $1.30 per bushel. However, it’s important to put those figures into perspective, warned the economists. They noted: