Letter from Langdon: Blinded by the Light


County of Origin Labeling didn’t hurt the Canadian cattle market, a new study of U.S. meat prices says. Big meatpackers would just to prefer to keep customers in the dark about where their meat comes from.

From the movie Warrior's Way The American people seem to be ready to take off the blindfold and see where our meat is coming from
From the movie Warrior’s Way
The American people seem to be ready to take off the blindfold and see where our meat is coming from

The American people seem to be ready to take off the blindfold and see where our meat is coming from.

Your family is hungry.

They rely on you to feed them.

And you want to provide them with healthy, safe, good-quality food that is free of contamination.

Now, picture a room full of doors. Behind each door, you’re told, is food from all over the world. It could be from anywhere – Brazil, Mexico, Canada, China. But the doors are blank – no labels. Finally, even though you’re not sure what you’re getting into, you choose a door, looking for that safe, nutritious food to feed your family. But before you can step over the threshold, the people in charge make you put on a blindfold.

That adds a whole new dimension to picking door number 3, doesn’t it?

For years, opponents of your right to know where your food comes from have been trying to convince Congress and the American people to keep the blindfold on. The less you know about food, they say, the better it is for everyone.

They’re saying we might be blinded by the light.

Now, most Americans don’t feel this way. That’s why Congress passed a law in 2008 requiring Country of Origin Labeling, or COOL. It requires food sellers to put some labels on those doors so we can know more about what’s in there. And COOL is supposed to prevent anyone from putting a blindfold over consumers’ eyes.

But some food producers and foreign governments have been fighting the law for years. One claim is that labeling meat with its country of origin violates trade agreements we have with countries like Canada and Mexico.

As evidence of this economic harm, COOL opponents have pointed to a study that purported to show that COOL cost the Canadian cattle industry $1 billion.

But a new study by C. Robert Taylor, Ph.D., of Auburn University disproves some of this decidedly one-sided, behind-closed-door claims by foreign governments and big business.

Through his broad, detailed analysis, Taylor proved that the opponents of COOL cherry-picked market data to make it appear Country of Origin Labeling hurts the pricing of imported live cattle and hogs.

First, Taylor showed that the recession was the cause of most of the change in meat prices, not COOL. The market data that COOL opponents used for their study were gathered after the U.S. recession started. During that period, consumer demand for all higher-priced cuts of meat declined based on personal buying power, not because of unjust discrimination in global markets, as opponents of COOL claim.

Critics of Country of Origin Labeling needed to prove this kind of economic harm so they could challenge not-so-sovereign U.S. law in World Trade Organization courts or to enlist help from friendly members of Congress.

Taylor also disproved another claim against COOL – that it dropped the price of imported slaughter cattle. Taylor’s study showed the opposite was true, in fact. During years following enactment of COOL, the price that Canadian slaughter cattle fetched in the U.S. market actually improved, relative to similar American cattle. (Slaughter cattle are mature animals ready for harvest.)

Removing the blindfold from consumers’ eyes didn’t hurt Canadian producers; it may have helped them.

Taylor’s report also disproved another claim – that letting American consumers know where their meat comes from had affected prices of feeder cattle in exporting countries. To show this wasn’t the case, Taylor used monthly data going back as far as 1995. The previous study went back onlyt to 2005. Access to such long-term data is important for reaching accurate conclusions about beef trade, because U.S. cattle prices follow cycles lasting from 10 to 15 years.

Livestock prices have always responded to supply, demand, weather, trade and other economic factors, as well as inventories on farms and ranches. Line charts depicting long term price trends show highs and lows, peaks and valleys representing fluctuations in the market.

Finally and perhaps most important, Taylor proved all this using publicly available data provided by meatpackers themselves through mandatory USDA price reporting, rather than the secret, proprietary data that was used in the previous study.

Taylor’s research proves that opponents of COOL took a narrow snapshot of one small portion of the cattle price cycle and labeled it the big picture.

Why did packers and foreign governments oppose COOL when American consumers made it clear they want to know where their food comes from?

They did it to keep you in the dark.

Richard Oswald, a fifth generation farmer, lives in Langdon, Missouri, and is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.

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