Since 2013, American consumers have seen labels on their meat telling them where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered. But in late December, Congress repealed the law that requires Country of Origin Labeling, otherwise known as COOL.
So is this a good thing or a bad thing? That depends on whom you ask. It's an issue that has created some strange bedfellows in industry, politics, agriculture and trade circles. Here's what you should know:
What proponents say: For supporters of COOL, the debate is about consumers' rights to know where their meat comes from. They cite reasons of food safety, sustainability and support for domestic farmers.
"Some people just want to spend their dollars closer to home," says Patty Lovera assistant director of Food & Water Watch, which supports COOL. "But there are also countries that we take products from that have had problems with mad cow disease and foot and mouth disease. Some folks might look at that (information) and think this is a risk, but how are they supposed to know if it's not labeled?"
What opponents say: For opponents of COOL, the regulation represents costly tracking and labeling; more than a billion dollars in potential retaliatory tariffs and a signal to our trading partners that the U.S. is not willing to abide by international trade decisions.
Representatives of industrial meatpacking and processing say they don't want to stop Americans from knowing where their meat comes from, but claim that there are other ways to find out.
"If meat comes from another country direct to retail it must be labeled from that country," says Eric Mittenthal of the North American Meat Institute. "That has long been the law. Otherwise if it's processed in a U.S. facility under (Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service) inspection it is marked as such. If companies decide to offer more detail they may, but we believe that should be voluntary so that consumers may be the ultimate judge of what they value."
What consumers think: Each faction cites conflicting studies to support its point. COOL opponents cite a 2012 University of Kansas study showing minimal demand. But COOL supporters cite a 2013 poll by the Consumer Federation of America suggesting that 87 percent of consumers want COOL labeling.
Some meats are exempt: The final repeal applies to pork and beef but not to chicken (as was suggested in some proposals) and lamb products, which both still do need labels.
This wasn't a solo act: The repeal came stuffed into a $1.15 trillion omnibus spending bill that contained a lot of controversial food and agriculture provisions baked right into it —like a dense holiday fruitcake. Many of the provisions were favorable to the groups who oppose the repeal.
American livestock groups stand divided: The giant North American Meat Institute (which represents U.S. meatpackers, processors and their suppliers) favors the repeal. But the National Farmers Union and Ranchers Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, which represents smaller domestic producers of livestock, strongly support the label.
Canada and Mexico are mad: Our neighbors to the north and south say COOL has caused them more than $3 billion in damages. WTO estimated it was about a third of that.
COOL could've brought heavy penalties: The World Trade Organization has ruled multiple times against COOL as written — saying it unfairly discriminates against meat imports and gives the advantage to domestic meat products. Earlier this month, WTO approved $1.1 billion in retaliatory tariffs on U.S. products like furniture, metal tubing, jewelry and more. Many of those industries were involved in lobbying Congress for the repeal.