In October 2008, when country of origin tags appeared on other meats at the counter, a few loopholes blew the debate wide open.  “As written, the law states that we must label fresh meats [along with fresh fruits, vegetables, peanuts and certain nuts], but then it says that processed versions of those foods are exempt,” Lovera explains. And, “processed” has been defined by the USDA as broadly as possible, going so far as to include smoking, curing (think ham and bacon), roasting, and adding one other covered ingredient. “If you mix the proverbial peas and carrots, they’re exempt, even if they were imported from other countries.”

Also exempt are establishments that buy less than $230,000 in products per year, a designation that includes most meat and fish markets (where the goods are typically produced, not purchased). The third troubling facet is labeling that states meats “might be from” multiple countries, typically the United States, Canada, and Mexico. This generalization covers animals raised in one country but butchered in another, or meats combined during processing to make ground products. “We thought we had agreement on the rule that animals born, raised, and slaughtered here would be identifiable and labeled accordingly,” Lovera explains. “Letting the industry call everything a product of multiple countries out of convenience takes away American producers’ price benefit and leaves the consumer in the dark.”

The good news is that COOL guidelines have not been finalized. Lovera hopes that the rule’s six-month trial period (slated to end in June 2009) will give processors and grocers time to label efficiently and allow consumers opportunity to take lawmakers to task.

“Everybody who values food should be telling their congressmen, ‘I’ve been waiting for this labeling, and the USDA is screwing it up. Get involved,'” Lovera says. “Talk to your supermarket managers–they can require precise labeling of suppliers even without a law.”

Obviously, such requirements promote customer loyalty to stores. “Consumers also need to ask, ‘Am I willing to pay more for items that are from the U.S.?'”

National Animal Identification System

In the field, another unwieldy proposal seems to be muddling its good intentions. Established to help the government trace outbreaks of food-borne illnesses to the animals and farms on which they began, NAIS aims to a) identify farms (premises); b) identify the livestock and poultry produced on those farms; and c) track the transport of tagged animals when they leave their registered premises.

Species affected include cattle; bison; goats; poultry; cervids (deer and elk); swine; equines (horses, mules, donkeys, and burros); sheep; and camelids (llamas and alpacas). But (and there’s always a catch where small-scale producers are involved) the system requires animals with access to pasture to have individual electronic tags or chips, while animals “raised and moved through the production chain as one group” (in confinement) may be identified by a single identification number. The costs of tagging and tracking animal transfer lie with the producer, an obvious stumbling block to the small-scale farmer who moves a herd to several pastures during each growing season.

Wisconsin and Michigan currently lead the nation in requiring components of NAIS. Premise registration is required in both states, for example, and state agencies are leaning hard on producers to begin identifying animals electronically, withholding dairy licenses and other means of livelihood, in some cases. In other states, including Iowa, participation in NAIS is voluntary (and therefore rare).

Opponents of NAIS point out that most livestock are already identified through private-industry, disease-control, and theft-prevention programs, including processes for organic certification. While it’s true that established programs aren’t easily consolidated, inventing a new one seems extravagant, Lovera concludes on behalf of hundreds of farmers interviewed by Food & Water Watch.

And then there’s the Big-Brother-ness of the idea, even as NAIS coordinators promise that “federal law protects individuals’ private information and confidential business information from disclosure” and that the “USDA maintains only limited premises registration information and will not have direct access to animal identification
or movement records.”

Creating a “modern, streamlined” national database seems to flout the wisdom of and widespread interest in diversifying and localizing America’s food resources. And besides, producers add with a chuckle, that’s just asking for cow-tapping.

So, what to do? Contact your state representatives and start talking to your neighbors, Lovera urges. “Looking at NAIS from a practical standpoint, if we really want to talk about animal health issues, we all need to talk about how we’re raising animals.” And in the meantime, here’s hoping a little goodwill may help our food travel safely from farm to family table, plastic parsley and all.

A handy guide to COOL exemptions is available at in .pdf here

Kristine Kopperud Jepsen writes from the field — literally — as half of Grass Run Farm and a local foods advocate near Dorchester, Iowa. Inspired to tell the story of various curiosities and challenges, Kristine has contributed to several community-based journals on land and the web.


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