Where’s the Beef (From)?

Way back in the early 80s Wendy’s hamburger chain ran a TV commercial that featured three old ladies exploring a competitor’s “really big bun” and the relative absence of meat; one of the women had a deep, harsh voice and used it repeatedly to bark out: “Where’s the beef?” Now, in this day of supersizing, the question isn’t so much about the size of the patty as its provenance. That goes for just about all forms of food, our concern fuelled by dangerous additives, e coli, listerosis, and the lack of control over suppliers distributed across the globe.

As of the new year, Canada has imposed new food labelling regulations in order, among other things, to provide consumers with some assurances about what’s local — i.e. Canadian — and what’s not. This isn’t the place to go into the legal basis for these directives (and I’m not the person to take you there, at any event). But the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has a number of web pages that gloss things pretty well:

Under the revised guidelines if Product of Canada appears on the label all major ingredients and labour used to make the food product must come from Canada.

The Made in Canada claim will be used when the food product is manufactured or processed in Canada regardless of whether the ingredients are imported or domestic or both. Before the Made in Canada claim can be used on a food product, the last substantial transformation on the product must have occurred in Canada. The claim would then be qualified with either ‘Made in Canada from domestic and imported ingredients’ or ‘Made in Canada from imported ingredients’. [emphasis mine]

(For a more detailed version of this aspect of the much larger food labelling directives, take a look at chapter 4.19 of the ministry’s Guide to Food Labelling and Advertising.)

The business of labelling the country of origin has a chequered history, starting perhaps with Britain’s Merchandise Marks Act 1887, seemingly aimed at Germany with its requirement that goods imported from that country bear the mark “made in Germany.” From my youth I can remember the disparagement heaped on goods that were marked “made in Japan.” On the other hand, as I’ve just suggested, labelling food “made in Canada” — or should that be “product of Canada”? — is meant to be as reassuring and, indeed, alluring as putting a “made in Italy” label on a pair of shoes.

Unless it’s beef that’s being exported to the U.S.

As of October 1 last year, the United States introduced (on an interim basis) its own country of origin labelling for imported goods, with the effect that imported cattle and pigs must be segregated in special feed lots, increasing costs and causing some producers to reject Canadian meat. Canada, together with Mexico, complained to the World Trade Organization that the U.S. legislation breaches the trade agreement. The rules were changed to Canada’s satisfaction; however, President Obama recently ordered a review of the the rules; and Canada made it clear last week that if the rules are reapplied to it, Canada will renew its WTO complaint.

The WTO supervises the international “rules of origin” agreement, which, among other things,

requires WTO members to ensure that their rules of origin are transparent; that they do not have restricting, distorting or disruptive effects on international trade; that they are administered in a consistent, uniform, impartial and reasonable manner

Tricky stuff, this. Protectionism, safety, transparency… How would a “product of the U.S.A.” label for cattle fare, I wonder?

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