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Mandatory meat labels economically not worth the fight, study says

By Michael Fielding on 1/12/2015

Most shoppers don’t take the time to look for labels indicating where the meat originated, according to new research.

In October 2014, the World Trade Organization ruled in favor of Canada and Mexico, finding that the mandated country-of-origin labels (COOL) in the U.S. are not trade compliant and hurt business in nearby countries. The U.S. is appealing the decision. However, research from Kansas State University, in collaboration with Oklahoma State University, finds that most consumers aren't willing to pay extra for the label.

To the 1,950 Americans surveyed online about four specific meat and dairy products — ground beef, beef steak, chicken breast and milk — COOL is among the lowest in importance for consumers across 11 product attributes.

Of the 11 attributes considered (including safety, price and animal welfare), origin ranked 9th in ground beef, 11th in beef steak and 9th in chicken breast assessments. The results can be viewed in a forthcoming article in the Journal of Food Products Marketing.

What’s more, "[l]ess than one-third of the participants surveyed know that it is a law to label where the meat originates," said Glynn Tonsor, associate professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University. "Effectively, producers lose and consumers lose because we have not observed an aggregate demand increase in response to that origin information."

In December the U.S. House passed a $1 trillion spending package to require USDA to recommend action on COOL, which has repeatedly been shot down by the World Trade Organization.

The labels were implemented in 2009 to provide shoppers more information about the origin of their meat. In 2013, the labels were revised to provide more specifics about the origin, including where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered. Tonsor surveyed consumers in 2009 and in 2013 and found the same results: Most shoppers aren't interested in the labels.

"Time and time again, we find that food safety, price, freshness and taste tend to be attributes, regardless of the meat product we're talking about, that rank highly in importance and drive purchasing decisions," Tonsor said. "Social issues like origin, environmental impact and sustainability matter to consumers, but do not drive purchasing decisions."

A decision on the U.S. appeal is expected in early 2015. In the meantime, country-of-origin labels are still being used.

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