By Robert Turner
Did you ever notice that there is a country of origin label on just about everything that you buy except for meat in the grocery store? You might assume that it’s a “Product of USA,” but you might assume wrong.
The US imported more than three billion pounds of beef last year from 20 different countries. That’s more than nine pounds of meat per person—man, woman and child. That equates to more than a month of Quarter Pounders, one every day, and you have no idea where that meat came from.
Most imported beef comes from Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, but imports from Brazil are quickly growing. Because there is no country of origin labeling required for meat, you won’t ever know where that burger or steak comes from, and large multinational food corporations would like to keep it that way.
There’s also no telling how your meat purchases might be impacting the planet. Many scientists and researchers claim that the biggest reason for the worldwide loss of our rainforests (and forestland in general) is agriculture, particularly beef production. The sad truth is this: the Amazon is burning to make room for more cows. The Brazilian meat company JBS is one of the four largest meat packers in the world and controls most of the American meat supply, and it has been implicated for its role in the loss of the Amazon rainforest.
An ecologically minded person might say, “Save the rain forest—Stop buying meat from Brazil.” But you don’t know where the meat comes from. And this says nothing about the health risks of imported beef. The USDA only recently lifted a ban on imported meat from Brazil (February 2020) due to concerns over food safety violations. Brazil and JBS are known as “bad actors,” with a long history of corruption—including bribing politicians and food inspectors and exporting tainted meat.
The financial impact of cheap beef imports on the American farmer is fairly well-documented. In 2015, Congress repealed mandatory Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) for beef and pork, and almost immediately US calf prices dropped by more than $500 per head (almost in half). That is not only money out of the farmers’ pockets, but it is also money that will not be spent in rural communities. A lot of the money now goes off to foreign multinational corporations instead.
While country of origin labeling is not mandatory, some meat producers can label their product “Made in USA” if they want to and if they can keep track of it through the system. The problem with the current policy is that it allows imported meat to bear the label “Product of USA” if it simply passes through a USDA-inspected plant. It says nothing about where the cow was raised or slaughtered. That’s just another loophole in our food policy.
The “Big Four” meatpacking companies, including Cargill, JBS, National Beef and Tyson Foods, control more than 85 percent of the US beef supply. That gives them a lot of power over prices and politics. To maintain both their lock on the marketplace and their share of the retail price, large multinational corporations have intentionally blocked transparency in the food marketplace.
Labeling provides consumers with important information about their purchasing choices. It helps guide people who want to buy from US family farmers and ranchers rather than industrial multinational corporations that commingle meat products from several foreign countries. Right now, one package of hamburger might contain meat from cows that grew up on two sides of the planet. Leaner, grass-fed beef from Australia is often mixed with fattier, corn-fed meat from Kansas. You wouldn’t know that. The package just says “Leaner.” But the food miles associated with that package are now hidden—and you can’t get much farther away than Australia.
We should never have allowed the Big Four to take such control over our beef market. And it would be prudent to decentralize meat processing to allow for more companies to compete. The current level of monopolistic concentration is a threat to our economic and national security.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us how the biggest links in our food supply chain are also the weakest links, and they have become a risk to our food security and food sovereignty. We need a more decentralized food system that benefits farmers more than it does a few large multinationals. And we need to know where our food comes from; it’s absurd that we don’t know. As consumers, it’s our right to know what we put into our bodies, and so we need to pull back the veil to see the ghost in the machine. We need to pay attention to the man behind the curtain. And we can start by putting country of origin labels back on meat products.
Robert Turner is the director of the Creekside Farm Education Center and the author of Carrots Don’t Grow on Trees: Building Sustainable and Resilient Communities. To learn more, visit EatYourView.com