The recent news that meatballs sold by Ikea – in Europe, not here in the U.S. – contained horsemeat only stayed on people’s minds for as long as it took to confirm that the tainted product was Europe’s problem, not ours.

Ikea claims it has implemented new practices to track meat “from farm to fork” — not the most appetizing of images, but a catchy phrase nonetheless. The company also helpfully offered that it might tighten up loose links in the supply chain by combining practices, such as slaughtering and deboning, in a single venue. Which ought to assure meat lovers that most icky parts of the process are happening under one roof. Europe’s roof. Where cows are mad and horsemeat’s a fad.

Ostrich mentality notwithstanding, the U.S. has meat-related problems of its own. Including a major conflict involving groups like the National Cattlemen’s Association, which doesn’t want you to know that your store-bought pork chops possibly came from a foreign country where food-processing regulations could make Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle – a 1906 novel touching on the sickening horrors of America’s meat-packing industry — look like a prequel to Polyanna.

What’s the beef?

Here’s the skinny: Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture formulated new rules, finalized just recently, to bring America in line with World Trade Organization standards for labeling. The new regs require producers to clearly indicate a meat’s country of origin as well as any production steps taken. So, if a piece of steak was farm-raised in Canada but butchered and processed in the U.S., the label would need to say that.

Meat industry organizations claim that requiring that sort of labeling creates a problem. Not in the area health and safety standards. But as to possible retaliatory tariffs and/or other types of trade sanctions. Currently, 12% of all pork produced in the U.S. gets exported to China. According to a report from MSN.com, industry folks are concerned that labeling requirements on imports might stop the flow of pig products to the world’s populous country. Or, failing that, the import of some things Chinese.

And it doesn’t stop there. The Cattlemen’s Association said in a statement,

While trying to make an untenable mandate fit with our international trade obligations, USDA chose to set up U.S. cattle producers for financial losses. Moreover, this rule will place a greater record-keeping burden on producers, feeders and processors through the born, raised and harvested label.

Quality controlled

Isn’t there a real food safety problem, though? Particularly with imports? There would seem to be: Just by way of cursory example, as well as to confirm that actual processing problems do exist, consider the following scenarios, as recently reported by various outlets around the world:

  • Europe’s horsemeat problem extended to more than just a batch of Ikea meatballs; beef that whinnies was shipped out to Nestle and to Taco Bell. Again, just in European locations, but still….
  • A shipment of beef from South Africa was discovered to contain elements of goat, water buffalo and donkey meat, as well as some pork
  • China’s rivers, one report says, occasionally ferry pig carcasses downstream. And this is a country where Smithfield Farms’ possible new owners reside
  • At least one U.S. state, Illinois, has seen fit to consider banning lion meat. That’s right, lion meat. Why? It’s supposedly considered an ethical alternative – as in lionburgers — to factory-farmed beef. But only if it comes from circus animals headed to the slaughter. Which, if the trend caught on, would never result in a black market coming from overseas suppliers, right? And where is PETA in all of this?

Safety costs first

Another reason the meat industry dislikes the new labeling rules? It’s going to cost more to come up with new labeling systems and software to print the information. Which is a little like saying that there’s no sense in putting up signs in Hawaii around a newly discovered chasm that opens into a molten pool of lava. Because signs, you know, are expensive. Plus some people steal them for souvenirs. And tourists hate obstructed views of the ocean.

There’s no denying the possible trade pain that could arise should other countries resent America’s meat-labeling laws. And, as the Associated Press reported, the U.S. imports a significant number of foreign cattle, all of which are then slaughtered and processed here, presumably according to regulations. Which means the U.S. can’t simply wave its mighty wand and expect the rest of the world to bow down. Unless we want beef shortages in addition to ticked off trade partners.

Considering the alternatives, though, it’s difficult to support the industry’s outcry over clearer label information.

One possible solution? Since the meat industry execs clearly care about the future of their businesses, they should have no problem serving as random taste testers of every meat shipment that comes into the U.S. and that seeks to be subsequently sold without the proper labeling.

That would probably speed up regulatory compliance in a stockyard heartbeat. And without all the extra labeling equipment and software costs.

Boom. Problem solved.

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