Saskatchewan, Canada, July 19, 2003: 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
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
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
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.
© Paul Beingessner, firstname.lastname@example.org . The author
is a columnist, transportation consultant and third-generation
farmer in Truax, Saskatchewan.