What Global Trade Deals Mean for Your Dinner

If you don’t have a specialty butcher yet, make friends with one quick, because soon grocery stores may not offer as much information about where their meat comes from. I recommend second-generation butcher Pam Ginsberg, mine for 15 years, at Wagshal’s in Washington, D.C.—but more on her in a minute.

First, the big picture: Last week the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled against the parts of America’s 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills (a big pack of food and agriculture laws that gets revised every five years or so) requiring Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) on all meat and produce sold in America. That means those mandatory signs around U.S. grocery stores allowing shoppers to choose between steak from Mexico or America may soon be a thing of the past.

This is the new global food market, and organizations like the WTO are poised to play a big role in U.S. food labeling. The global trade group decides when countries are violating promises made in trade agreements. Mexico and Canada filed and won a complaint claiming that the U.S. Congress’s labeling laws for cattle and pork breached a treaty in which the U.S. government agreed to give “no less favorable” treatment to imported products. Labeling products as originating from outside the U.S., one argument reasoned, was equivalent to labeling them as inferior.

After giving a moment of thanks that American food quality is still generally seen as something to asipire to, consider: If the U.S. keeps its food labeling law, passed by Congress and implemented by the President, America will be violating the very-much unknown realm of international food law. Fines, tariffs, and general international trade strife would ensue.

American leaders have pledged to change the COOL law in response to the decision, which would likely be by Congress repealing it. Many agriculture leaders in Congress have long supported repealing the labeling requirement, calling it an undue burden on meat companies. (And to file under Strange Bedfellows: Many who oppose labeling also oppose the World Trade Organization having influence over American laws.)

Repeal of the labeling law would be a blow for consumer advocates and the good-food movement, both of which fought for the law so people of all income levels and locations could have access to the kinds of information that many shoppers could previously get only at small (and costly) markets. And last week’s decision, while related only to meat, could reach much farther.

Which is where Pam the Butcher comes in. When grocery stores stop identifying food’s country of origin, many shoppers who have gotten used to those labels over the past decade or so will miss them. “Where is this steak from?” will be met with a shrug and that won’t cut it in a world that is demanding ever more information about food. The need for face-to-face expertise will rise. People like Pam the Butcher will become even more important, and not just when you need three-dozen duck breasts and a pheasant in two hours (don’t ask).

So removal of country of origin labeling laws may provide a future for brick-and-mortar grocery markets in a click-and-order grocery world–a way to differentiate in-person shopping from faceless online ordering. The danger is that expensive stores, which have customers who have a choice about where to shop, will probably still choose to label with country of origin. The stores in food deserts, which have customers who shop there because price and location force them to, will not. The food divide between the haves and have-nots may grow wider.

As Lucille Adams-Campbell, associate director for minority health and health disparities research at Georgetown University said at the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Summit at National Geographic headquarters last week, the biggest nutritional myth is that low-income populations don’t care about their own health, wellness, and well-being. There are lots of people in so-called food deserts who care about where their meat comes from. They just need to be reached.

In the famous Portlandia sketch, a couple drills their waitress about where their chicken came from. Which farm? How far away? Did he have friends? How much area did he have to roam? What was his name? Was he happy? Usually when a food trend is poked fun of to this extent, it’s on its way out (think teensy food). But that episode aired in January, 2011 and the WTO’s latest ruling on labeling shows just how relevant food origins still are.