What’s Wrong With Labeling Meat?

[imgbelt img=pinkslimesign.jpg]There is a long-term decline in beef consumption. Now Big Ag is driving more consumers away from beef by refusing to tell people what’s in their meat. And all that does is hurt ranchers and cattle raisers.


A message from the Rural Assembly

The concern being voiced is not primarily about these issues of definition. It’s the “ick factor” and the fact that consumers cannot determine which products contain pink slime and which do not. The result is falling demand for all hamburger as consumers switch to other meat products, at least temporarily.

Many of the consumers who have raised concern about the presence of pink slime in hamburger still purchase hot dogs and sausage, and “who wants to know how they are produced?” The difference is their labels contain a list of ingredients including things like potassium lactate, sodium diacetate, sodium erythorbate, and sodium nitrate.

In addition hot dogs are produced in a dizzying number of varieties including “all beef,” “turkey and chicken,” and the traditional mixture that produces those yummy “dogs” that we ate as kids. In each case, consumers can read the label and choose the products they want to buy.

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Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.

If people will buy hot dogs that contain small amounts of sodium nitrate—a component in some fertilizers as well as fireworks—what is the problem with listing centrifuge-extracted finely textured beef, that has been treated with ammonium hydroxide to kill any bacteria, to the ground beef label?

Will people expect the same for other products? Probably — well, really, certainly. But what is the problem with that?

One of the principles of economics is symmetry of information between the buyer and the seller. In this case, is seems, the lack of symmetry and the unwillingness of the industry to provide symmetry has come back to haunt the markets that are so important to cattle producers.

The beyond-the-farm-gate portion of the meat industry, along with its organizations and advocates, has engaged in a long-standing fight against labeling meat. That stance has become counterproductive.

It appears to us that by fighting labeling and symmetry of information, and defending questionable production practices, the advocates of “industrial agriculture” have accelerated consumers’ movement toward organics and vegetarianism, both of which “Big Ag” seems to loathe. With organics, consumers feel they have a better handle on what is in the food they eat.

The “take home” message for the industry is that, in an age of web crawlers, search engines, and YouTube videos that can become viral, any attempt to provide less than full transparency will eventually result in a full-blown media circus, to the producer’s detriment. Full disclosure is the safest way to go—and it improves the level of information the consumer can use in making a choice of which products to purchase.

Daryll E. Ray holds the Blasingame Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Policy, Institute of Agriculture, University of Tennessee, and is the Director of UT’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center (APAC). Harwood D. Schaffer is a Research Assistant Professor at APAC.


A message from the Rural Assembly