For weeks, the Internet has been abuzz over the removal of a food label that nobody — except maybe die-hard locavores — really cared about until it was gone: the little sticker that told you where the cow or pig that’s now your dinner was born, raised, and slaughtered.
Of course, if put on the spot, most of us will declare, perhaps in an act of misplaced patriotism, that we want — no, demand! — U.S.-certified meat. In a 2011 University of Kentucky study, for example, U.S. consumers rated domestic beef as the safest and beef of an unknown origin as the riskiest. Another oft-cited study, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics, found that shoppers were willing to pay 38 percent more for U.S.-certified steak and 58 percent more for U.S.-certified burgers.
But these studies represent only a theoretical shopping trip. How does country-of-origin labeling affect our thinking when we’re mulling over meat in the supermarket—not being interviewed by a white-coated scientist? Research reveals that, in reality, we may not give the “Made in America” stamp much thought.
Here’s proof: The same University of Kentucky study found that only about a third of U.S. consumers consider the origin of their beef a serious concern. And in a 2014 Texas Tech University study, just 1 percent of U.S. beef eaters said country-of-origin is a critical factor when choosing their steaks, rating the type of steak, the appearance of the meat, the price, and the grade of beef as more important than where it came from.
Together, these findings suggest that, if asked, most of us will fight for the right to know where our meat was raised — but in truth, we probably didn’t pay that much attention to the country-of-origin labels we now claim to so desperately miss.
And as adamant as we may be that all things American are best, our tastebuds can’t really distinguish between a steak from the States and one from the land of Justin Bieber: In the same Texas Tech study, beef eaters thought U.S. and Canadian steaks were equally palatable. That may be because the beef production system in Canada is strikingly similar to that of U.S. producers, despite the media’s recent insistence that unlabeled, imported meat is something to be feared, says Kenneth Burdine, Ph.D., an assistant extension professor of livestock marketing at the University of Kentucky.
Canada has a predominantly grain-based system, just like the U.S., leading to the well-marbled, tender beef most of us want, Burdine says. And if you’re a fan of grass-fed meat, often touted for its higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, you may actually prefer imported meat, since countries like Australia and Uruguay often rely on grass more than grain, making their meat leaner.
Still opposed to the idea of meat from abroad? Keep in mind that only eight to 20 percent of our meat is imported — and it’s not coming primarily from China. According to USDA data, in 2015, the bulk of imported beef and veal was purchased from Australia, Canada, Mexico, and New Zealand. Most of our imported pork came from Canada, and imported lamb from Australia.
Much of the beef we import is relegated to ground beef, since the cattle raised in outside countries are often grass-fed, unlike the grain-fed — and fatter — cattle raised stateside. As a result, the ground beef you buy in the supermarket is probably a melting pot of meat: some of the fatty stuff from the States, combined with leaner beef from, say, Australia or New Zealand. Under the now-defunct country-of-origin labeling (COOL) regulations, all of the countries of origin had to be listed on the label — but with a notable loophole: If a processor stopped using ground meat from a particular country, it had 60 days to remove that country from the label, meaning the country-of-origin label may not have been entirely accurate for up to two months, according to University of Idaho experts. So much for total transparency.
Another reason why COOL may not be all it’s cracked up to be: The law never applied to the most concerning meat products on store shelves — hot dogs, sausage, lunch meats, meatloaf, pre-cooked products, or products in which meat is one ingredient among many (e.g. spaghetti sauce, pizza). In other words, under COOL, the “mystery” meats of the supermarket were allowed to remain, well, a mystery.
This doesn’t discount the fact that country-of-origin labels can help inform the consumers who choose to use them — and that removing these labels means shoppers have access to one less piece of information about their meat. So, yes, from this perspective, the repeal of COOL is a step backward for consumers.
But, the truth is, says Keith Belk, Ph.D., a professor of meat safety and quality at Colorado State University, COOL was never about the people buying meat — it was about the people selling it. “At the time, the U.S. was importing lots of really lean cattle, because we didn’t have enough cattle to make ground beef with,” says Belk, who testified before Congress when COOL was originally proposed. “So [cattle producers] would see all these cattle coming across the [U.S.-Canadian] border. They felt the government should do more to protect the prices of their products, instead of bringing product across the border from Canada. So initially, [country-of-origin labeling] was a protectionism effort.”
Senators from the border states where these cattlemen lived lobbied to add country-of-origin labeling requirements to the 2002 Farm Bill — and they succeeded, which meant that producers of whole muscle cuts and ground beef, chicken, goat, and pork, as well as various non-meat foods, including fresh produce, had to let consumers know where they came from. Congress delayed COOL’s implementation twice, but in 2009, the law finally went into effect.
In 2013, an additional layer was added: Instead of saying,“Product of the U.S.,” for example, producers had to specify “Born, Raised, and Slaughtered in the U.S.” or “Born in Canada, Raised and Slaughtered in the U.S.” This change was an attempt to appease the World Trade Organization (WTO), which had already begun cracking down on country-of-origin labeling, since it was found to violate international trade agreements.
If all of this sounds like a move toward greater transparency, think again: The producers that pushed for country-of-origin labeling opposed traceability — that is, the use of barcoded ear tags, retinal scanning, or DNA tracking to follow livestock from birth to slaughter, making it easy to prove whether or not the animal was truly of 100 percent U.S. origin. “They didn’t want to put themselves in the position of proving that their cattle came from where they said they came from,” explains Belk. The result was an honor system of sorts: Under COOL legislation, producers legally only had to sign an affidavit promising their cattle were raised where they advertised. “Not all producers are honest—most of them are, but there are some that aren’t,” Belk says.
When the U.S. appealed the WTO ruling, the organization stuck by its decision, permitting Mexico and Canada—two of the countries most significantly affected by COOL — to instate retaliatory trade sanctions against the United States, totaling more than $1 billion. This is what ultimately prompted Congress to repeal the labeling law for beef and pork in December.
But before you claim conspiracy — the government wants to feed us filthy meat! — consider this: The USDA has consistently explained that country-of-origin labeling is a marketing program, not a food-safety measure. “It means almost nothing for food safety,” contends Edward Mills, Ph.D., an associate professor of meat science at Penn State University. “It just makes a difference on what labels are on the boxes and packages.” Burdine echoes this sentiment: “Country-of-origin does not impact the inspection or food safety standards at all—whether the label is there or not, the same food safety standards apply.”
Read: Regardless of where the meat is from — whether California or Australia or Uruguay—the product is held to the same rigorous rules, or what the USDA calls “equivalency requirements.”
This means that processing facilities around the world must use the same, or equivalent, safety measures as those implemented in the U.S., says Belk, who has visited a number of plants around the world—and concluded that “[imported meat] is at least as safe as the meat you’d buy here.”
In fact, the concern over the origins of meat may simply be due to a lack of understanding of how our food inspection system works. In recent years, with the spate of cases of contaminated produce, there’s understandable anxiety about imported fruits and vegetables. But produce is under the jurisdiction of the FDA, while meat is presided over by the USDA — a distinction that matters. “The USDA has over 3,000 inspectors for under 3,000 plants,” says Mills, “whereas FDA has a few hundred inspectors for something like 5,000 plants.” As Belk explains, “USDA has inspectors in every plant that produces beef that is sold in the United States. FDA has only enough inspectors to look at processing operations once every three years.”
Bottom line: Country-of-origin labels provided a piece of information — and any information is valuable when it comes to the food we eat. But the labels are not the end-all-be-all for selecting safe, high-quality food. So what should you rely on instead?
Look for the USDA stamp of approval
It should be a given that your meat has been inspected by the USDA — but occasionally, a shipment slips through the cracks, as was recently the case with chicken and beef from a California producer, prompting a recall of the uninspected meat. So scan the package for a stamp that says the USDA inspected — and passed — the meat. “The USDA inspection stamp on meat products is a really, really important indicator of safety,” says Mills. “That tells you that the animal was healthy at slaughter, that it was slaughtered and processed in a sanitary environment, that the appropriate temperatures have been maintained.”
Be aware that you may occasionally encounter chicken without a USDA stamp — and that doesn’t mean it was unintentionally passed over. Small poultry producers are legally exempted from inspection, says Mills, so you won’t see the USDA icon on their packaging. In these cases, consider asking the producer to show you third-party certification—for example, from the Global Food Safety Initiative—so you know that certain safety standards are being upheld.
Shop local — with caution
If you want to know where your meat was slaughtered, you may be tempted to turn to farmers’ markets for your steaks. But look past the charming chalkboard signs, and you may make an unwelcome discovery. “You can find ‘locally raised beef’ being sold that came out of a Tyson box,” says Belk. He suggests visiting the actual farm to make your purchase — that way, you can see exactly how the livestock are being raised, and increase your odds of getting exactly what you think you’re buying. Even then, you should ask to see third-party verification and check for the USDA stamp of approval, advises Belk.
Visually inspect your beef
Mills trains chefs to look for two basic signs of high-quality — and therefore, tasty — beef: marbling and minimal amounts of external fat. “You want to see the flecks of fat on the inside of the muscle — the marbling part — because that’s where the flavor and desirability comes from,” he says. “From a health perspective, that fat is a very small component of the total composition of the product.” The appearance of your steak may also be a clue as to where it came from — if your meat has little to no marbling, it may be from outside our borders. When cattle are grass-fed, as is the case in many of the countries from which the U.S. imports beef, they tend to be leaner, therefore yielding less-marbled meat.
Make sure marketing claims are legit
If a product’s package is littered with stickers — Natural! Free-range! Organic! — look for a second USDA sticker that says “process verified” or for a Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) stamp. If you see either one, “then as a consumer, you would have very good confidence that the producer was doing what they said they were doing,” says Belk. In other words, both stamps signal that the company’s claims about how the meat was produced have been confirmed by a third party.
Shop for USDA-certified meat
Country-of-origin labels aren’t the only USDA-approved form of marketing for meat. There are several USDA-certified marketing programs — such as the Nolan Ryan’s Tended Aged Beef Program and Certified Angus Beef — that ensure the meat sold under these names abides by a set of standards above and beyond the law. “They have to pass inspection, they have to be safe — but they also have to meet a level of quality that is quite specific,” says Mills. “If you buy something with the Certified Angus Beef logo on it, you know they selected from the upper two-thirds of choice, that they’ve selected cattle that do not have bromine genetics. Meat from bromine cattle tends to not be as tender. So those are excluded.” For a complete list of certified programs for beef, veal, pork, and lamb, click here.
Although “organic” won’t tell you much about taste, says Mills, it will guarantee that synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, and genetic engineering haven’t been used during production of your meat; the animals were fed an organic diet; the livestock spent a significant amount of time grazing out on pasture; and the animals have access to the outdoors all year, according to USDA standards.