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Mad cows are not COOL

Paul Beingessner
Canadian farmer and writer

(Wednesday, July 23, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- A group of teenagers from a small town in Saskatchewan were the talk of western Canada last week when they took to the city streets to try to do something about the mad cow crisis. Not yet used to just hanging around the local coffee shop and carping, these teen activists did some research into the fast food industry in Canada.

The research told them that fast food outlets in western Canada often do not use Canadian beef exclusively, or even at all. Their next step was to protest at some of the burger joints in Regina and Moose Jaw. The group felt that if they could convince these restaurants to use only Canadian beef, it would be a small but real step toward improving the situation of farmers and feedlot owners unable to sell their production to the relatively small domestic market.

They were surprisingly successful. A number of fast food chains agreed to switch to exclusively Canadian beef. One admitted that it had been using a mixture of beef from 3 countries. Another chain with numerous outlets in Canada was quoted as saying it did not use any Canadian beef in its burgers and beef sandwiches. Canadians, of course, are blithely unaware of all this.

In the nationalistic fervor that arises when a country's farm sector is unfairly bloodied, it is possible that some Canadian consumers will follow the lead of the students who began the protest. They might, for a short time, watch for some indication that the restaurant they choose is doing its bit for farmers. A few of the more socially conscious might make it a cause for some time, but the truth is that most consumers don't know and really don't care where their food comes from.

Let's face it. Wealthier consumers buy food based on appearance, fashion and taste. The poor buy on price. Unfortunate as it is, only a few worry about such incidentals as nutrition and where the food was produced.

All of which brings me to Country of Origin Labeling or COOL. This is a concept that is currently fighting for its life in the American governmental process. COOL would require fresh and frozen agricultural products sold in most retail outlets to carry a label designating its country of origin. To qualify as an American product, meat would have to come from animals that are born, raised in and slaughtered in the U.S.

Much of the justification for COOL says that if consumers were given a choice, they would prefer to purchase American. While this may be true for some folks, I suspect that people will still continue mainly to buy on appearance, taste, fashion and price.

The real effect of COOL will be on food processors, like the massive packing plants, and on feedlots. Given the huge nature of these enterprises, the act of keeping track of the origin of their meat will pose a real problem. If packers are going to kill and process Canadian beef, they will likely have to segregate it somehow on the plant floor. If this proves to be a major hassle, they would simply refuse to purchase meat raised in countries like Canada or Mexico. At any rate, it will add cost to the finished product - a cost that will have to be absorbed somewhere.

Feedlots might find themselves in a similar quandary. Right now, many American cattle feeders reach into Canada to purchase calves and feeder cattle, especially when the Canadian dollar is low. Having to track these cattle in the feedlot will add costs to American feeders and farmers. This would result in reduced demand for Canadian cattle and increased prices for those in the U.S.

The demand for COOL in the U.S. is driven by the root of the problem of farmers everywhere - inadequate returns for their product. Some consumers will react to a "buy American" campaign, but it is questionable how many. The real effect will be on sourcing animals by feeders and packers. Since Canada is the biggest foreign supplier of meat and animals to the U.S., the biggest potential impact would be here. But, I repeat, it will not be because of the consumer. I suspect all but the most fervently nationalistic American will think that Canadian beef is pretty much the same as American beef. In fact, it may even get branded as a superior product.

All of this does nothing to deal with the real problems in the meat industry. These include the monopoly of a few packers and their ability to control prices through captive supplies; the mixing of meat literally from across the world into massive lots, and the attending health problems that have resulted; land prices driven up by speculators and wealthy urbanites; and consumers that are poorly educated about their food and choose convenience over nutrition.

(c) Paul Beingessner (306) 868-4734 phone 868-2009 fax