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Mystery Meat Knows No Borders

Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at @smihm.
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 Last week, the House of Representatives voted to repeal a law requiring pork, chicken and beef from Canada and Mexico to have so-called country-of-origin labels. The two U.S. neighbors recently won World Trade Organization rulings that the labeling was a form of discrimination.

These labels, enacted as part of farm bills in 2002 and 2008, were initially viewed as a way to protect consumers. But history suggests that country-of-origin laws have a long and dubious history as a weapon in the protectionism arsenal.

In an earlier era of globalization -- the late 19th century -- trading nations inevitably clashed as domestic producers struggled to compete with low-priced imports of everything from high-end hats to cuts of beef.

Most troubling, perhaps, was the habit of unscrupulous importers or retailers to market foreign-made items as domestic. English livestock producers, for example, inveighed against importers and butchers who passed off supposedly inferior beef from the U.S. as British.

The case of bogus beef, detailed by historians David Higgins and Dev Gangjee, ultimately resulted in legislation that criminalized the fraudulent, misleading labeling of goods from abroad. A butcher who sold an American cut of meat as British could be subject to criminal penalties.

But this didn’t satisfy English livestock producers, who wanted something that would protect their market share. If consumers thought American beef was inferior to British beef, why not insist that all imports be labeled with their provenance? This tactic, which the Times labeled protectionism “by the back door,” never caught on in Britain.

Things played out differently in the U.S. In 1890, Republican Representative William McKinley led the charge for legislation that slapped tariffs on a staggering variety of foreign goods.  Many of these jacked up prices of imports by almost 50 percent as a way to protect domestic manufacturers.

Buried in the legislation was a little-debated provision that remains relevant today. "All items of foreign manufacture," it said, must "be plainly marked, stamped, branded, or labeled in legible English words, so as to indicate the country of their origin; and unless so marked, stamped, branded, or labeled they shall not be admitted to entry.”

In November 1890, shortly after the passage of the tariff, the New York Times recalled that McKinley claimed to want to protect Americans "from the imposition of foreign goods.” The “real intention of Mr. McKinley and his infant industry protégés,” the paper argued, would have been revealed “if instead of ‘imposition’ the paragraph should read ‘importation.’”

Though subsequent tariff bills changed the rates assessed on various articles, this language more or less remained. In the 20th century, the requirements that all foreign imports be marked became even more pronounced and rigorous.

The Fordney-McCumber Tariff, enacted in 1922, included language that imposed an additional 10 percent penalty on any item that failed to announce its origins. This was an overt, heavy-handed attempt to target goods that might otherwise prove difficult to label. As a judge on the U.S. Customs Court would write in the late 1920s, this provision was designed “to make difficult and expensive importations of merchandise in order to discourage or reduce competition with domestic merchandise.”

This approach was ultimately codified in the infamous Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, which has often been blamed for exacerbating the Great Depression.

The labeling requirement covered everything from roof tiles to tins of ham -- anything that was in “retail ready” form. But this left a significant loophole for things like fruits, vegetables, nuts and other agricultural products.

For example, boxes, crates and cartons containing foodstuffs from other nations would have to be labeled with the country of origin. But once in the U.S., the contents of those containers wouldn't have to be labeled when sold piecemeal at the retail level. From the standpoint of U.S. farmers, this was a significant loophole, and one that they spent decades trying to close.

They finally succeeded in 2002 and 2008, securing “country of origin” labels for foods via amendments to the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946. This insured that labels on meats gave consumers some sense of where their meat originated. Almost immediately, these regulations collided with the more complicated realities of food production.

If a cow raised in Canada was brought across the border and then slaughtered in the U.S., what was the meat's country of origin? Given the vast, complicated workings of agribusiness, was it even possible to segregate meat by country? Many U.S. processors didn’t want to incur the added expense of dealing with these complications.

In the end, these measures tended to disproportionately affect foreign producers of pork, chicken and beef, especially Canada and Mexico, the U.S.'s partners in the North America Free Trade Agreement. As imports from these nations declined, they filed suit with the World Trade Organization and threatened to impose billions of dollars in tariffs on imports from the U.S.

Anyone opposing the repeal of country-of-origin labels will no doubt summon the specter of Mexican mystery meat and other bugaboos. But given the history here, it’s worth remembering that these labels have primarily served to protect domestic industries -- not the ultimate consumer. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen Mihm at smihm1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net