3 Reasons You Should Care Where Your Food Comes From
Early in June, the House of Representatives voted to remove country-of-origin labels from meat sold in the United States. It was not a close vote; 300 representatives cast a ballot in favor of this change, while only 131 said nay. For consumers, the removal of identification labels would be a step away from responsible food sourcing and ostensibly leave room for more health concerns about the quality of the meat in question. Public perception is exactly what pulled this issue in front of Congress in the first place. The story begins with a disagreement in the World Trade Organization (WTO), and lawmakers’ big impetus for passing the legislation is maintaining trade partnerships with neighboring Canada and Mexico.
A series of rulings made between 2011 and 2012 by the WTO determined that labeling beef, pork, and chicken discriminates against livestock imported from Canada and Mexico. The final decision came in May, and both countries are seeking retaliatory actions amounting to a combined $3.7 billion annually. In turn, Canada has threatened to place trade restrictions on a range of U.S. exports, including meat, wine, chocolate, jewelry, and furniture. Of course, the amendment to 2002’s Country of Origin Labeling Amendments Act still must pass the Senate, but it does have the support of Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, who chairs the body’s Agricultural Committee. Roberts claimed that irregardless of senators support of country-of-origin labeling, measures must be taken to avoid retaliation. “Retaliation is imminent, and the U.S. cannot delay in preventing the expected $3.2 billion in sanctions,” he said.
The House of Representatives termed the mandatory Country of Origin Labeling Amendments Act”failed government mandate with serious economic implications.”
So with this weighty debate in Congress, The Cheat Sheet is looking into why you should know from where your food comes.
1. Do USDA standards guarantee meat quality?
The House Agriculture Committee defended its recommendation that Congress approve the amendment to remove country-of-origin labeling by arguing that “all meat products sold in the U.S., regardless of origin, must be inspected to equally rigorous standards.” And therefore, “country of origin labeling does not change any of these inspection requirements.”
So it could be argued that nothing really is changing.
But there is a larger point to be made, namely that transparency about how our food is produced is moving in the wrong direction. And while transparency is needed throughout the American food chain, the meat industry is perhaps the most compelling example.
One of the major tasks of the United States Department of Agriculture, formed in 1862, is to ensure that adulterated or mislabeled meat products are not brought to market, and that means products are slaughtered and processed under sanitary conditions. When the original Federal Meat Inspection Act was passed in 1906, partially in response to Upton Sinclair’s exposé of the Chicago meat packing industry, the government regulations were a substantial move toward safer food. And the inspections told consumers that diseased, rotten, and contaminated meat wouldn’t be sold to them. But thanks to the historic tensions between government bureaucracy, corporate lobbying, and the industry’s ever-present desire for fewer regulations, the USDA-approved label is less than assuring.
Why are there problems with USDA standards? This year, a whistleblower lawsuit gave the United States a clear picture of the growing deficiencies in government inspections. Court documents obtained by the Government Accountability Project show the failings of a government-run pilot program. Known as the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points-based based Inspection Models Project, or HIMP, the program experimented with fewer government inspections. It launched in 2002 and was fully implemented by 2004 after lobbyists pushed the USDA to try a new formula, where plants hired their own inspectors rather than rely on the manual inspection of carcasses, reported the New Republic. The idea was that cross-contamination would be reduced and production speeds would increase. Five pork-producing companies where chosen to participate.
Results were grim. According to Joe Ferguson, a retired USDA inspector for Quality Pork Processors, a co-packer for Hormel, the program was “a sham.” As a result, an inspector, identified in affidavits only as Inspector #3, noted: “It’s no longer meaningful for consumers to see that mark indicating that their product has been USDA-inspected.”
2. Knowing where your food comes from is a standard of healthy eating.
Even without the removal of country-of-origin, there are problems with the American industrial agriculture and food production, as New York Times Magazine writer and U.C. Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan outlined in the Omnivore’s Dilemma. He focuses on how Nixon-era government policy, which subsidizes farmers to grow as much corn as possible, hurts the environment and the American diet. The overabundance of corn means it is an inexpensive industrial raw material; once milled, refined and recompounded, corn can become ethanol fuel, thickener for milkshakes, the modified cornstarch that binds together a chicken nugget, and the high-fructose corn syrup that sweetens sodas. Corn is also fed to beef steer, as it fattens them up despite the fact the animal has not evolved to adequately digest it. This unnatural diet inevitably causes the animal stress, making them more susceptible to disease. As a result, the steer are pumped full of preventative antibiotics — dangerous to the planet, to the animals, and to those who consume them.
“There are three reasons you should care [where the meat in these processed foods comes from]: the animals, the planet, and your health,” New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman told BuzzFeed.
Omnivore’s Dilemma catapulted the concept of ethical food sourcing to the forefront of the national debate, and added momentum to the farm-to-table food movement. Even the USDA has launched a campaign called “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.
3. Mostly, you’re paying for marketing.
In an investigative piece, BuzzFeed found that not one single company interviewed — including General Mills, Kraft, and Campbell’s — would divulge their meat suppliers. Those who responded to the inquiry claimed they could not name their meat suppliers because of the competitive nature of their business. However, the market is far from crowded. A 2012 USDA report found that four processing companies produce 85% of America’s beef and 65% of its pork, and three produce more than half of all of our chicken.
“Only a few mega-corporations control the entire meat industry so that extra money you’re paying for brands like Oscar Mayer only goes to marketing, not quality,” Michele Simon, the author of Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back, told BuzzFeed. “That is code for ‘We have no damn clue where our meat comes from at any given time so cannot tell you,’” she added.
Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS