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The Life and Times of a Sirloin Steak

Required labels listing the origins of meat cause an international feud
The Life and Times of a Sirloin Steak
Photograph by Benjamin Rasmussen for Bloomberg Businessweek

Since November the federal government has required a new label to be included on meat sold in U.S. supermarkets: “Born, raised, and slaughtered in the United States,” it typically reads. If a steak was made from a steer reared in Canada or Mexico and brought to the U.S. for slaughter, the label has to say so. You may not have noticed this tiny type alongside the usual nutrition facts and health warnings about eating undercooked meat. Yet this Country of Origin Labeling, or COOL, has touched off threats of a trade war from Mexico and Canada and is the subject of a feud among U.S. ranchers over how much they should have to tell consumers about what’s for dinner.

The dispute pits pro-label cattlemen who want to tout homegrown beef against anti-label feedlots and meatpackers that move animals between Mexico and Canada and the U.S. to keep groceries stocked and prices low. They say it’s a nightmare trying to keep track of each steer’s life story. The lobbying on both sides has been so intense that it threatened to derail the five-year, half-trillion-dollar farm bill signed by President Obama on Feb. 7.