MOG Blog

What's the Beef? Why Wineries Opposed Origin Labeling for Meat

You might think that wineries would have championed federal Country of Origin Labelling (COOL) legislation for imported meat. Winemakers take pride in transforming grapes into a beverage that captures the flavor of the local environment, from climatic conditions down to the soils. The development and designation of AVAs across the country let them put that pride on their own labels, with the most cherished appellations worth oodles in the collectors’ mind. So what's their beef?

Knowing where your food comes from has even gone mainstream, thanks especially to books such as Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006) and J.B. MacKinnon and Alisa Smith, The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating (2007). King Retail Solutions of Eugene, Oregon, indicates that farmers’ markets are patronized by about a third of Americans – nearly triple the percentage two years ago.

The desire to know where food comes from and support local producers drove popular support for COOL legislation, originally introduced in 2002. However, it was gradually modified until, in 2008, Canada questioned the requirements for beef and pork. COOL, it argued, was inconsistent with its international trade agreements.

Repeated complaints to the World Trade Organization (WTO) culminated in an arbitrator ruling on December 7 that Canada and Mexico could impose tariffs on a range of U.S. goods, including wine, until the U.S. repealed the labeling provisions deemed to be costing livestock producers in the two countries more than a billion dollars a year.

That’s right – a billion dollars

What appellation ever cost another country’s wine industry that much in export sales?
While supporters of COOL, including respondents to Wines & Vines’s coverage of the issue, saw the repeal of labeling provisions for beef and pork as a hit to U.S. sovereignty, viticultural area designations define the origins of a local product and leave foreign product to stand on their own merits (often defined under one of a number of national appellation systems).

AVA designations are a way for locals to wave the flag for a prized commodity, in the same way that the American Angus Association developed the Certified Angus Beef program in 1978 to distinguish its members’ product.

COOL attempted to let consumers know where their red meat comes from, but the transcontinental nature of the industry worked against the initiative. Most meat on the market – in the U.S. or elsewhere – is indistinguishable from its neighbor, and the largest packers often blend meat from domestic and foreign animals together to create cheap patties that blend well with that jug of Rossi.

Whatever it looked like in the hide, it’s all the same fried. It’s a commodity few palates can accurately link to a particular piece of range (or feedlot, for that matter), one that even the beef industry said wasn’t benefitting from COOL.

And things aren’t likely to become any better under trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a deal concluded in October that’s set to come before Congress this spring. Globalization of the meat trade keeps prices down, even as it obscures a cut’s origins.

But the good news is that rules governing the labeling of imports don’t change the ability to state the local origins of domestic products.

Dairy Farmers of Canada, whose members are ceding market share to imports under the TPP, are encouraging consumers to buy product made from 100% domestic milk. It’s distinguished by a symbol colloquially known as “the little blue cow.”

DFC president Wally Smith, who farms a small herd on Vancouver Island, said that if consumers want to be certain of where their food comes from, they should watch for the blue cow. It’s a guarantee that the product uses only domestic dairy products.

“The share price on that symbol has doubled overnight because it’s so much more important now than at any time in the past,” Smith said. “Consumers will know that the products that they’re purchasing are made from 100% Canadian milk, produced by Canadian farmers and processed for the Canadian consumer.”

No matter where all the other dairy products are from, local production will be clear.
In effect, it’s what AVAs have being doing for years, linking wine to a place, distinguishing it for consumers and influencing its value in the market.

The question shouldn’t be why wineries opposed COOL; the real question is, what are meat producers doing to produce a cut that’s worth a glass of appellated wine?

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