Louisiana First to Require Information Alvin Schupp and Jeffrey Gillespie
Beef consumers are provided with various kinds of information on the fresh beef sold in grocery stores. Retail beef packages include all or some of the following: U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Quality Grade, species of meat, standardized and common cut name, brand or store label, price per unit, weight, total package costs, refrigeration and cooking suggestions, packaging date and limited nutrient information. Shoppers use this information and visual observation to choose meats.
Restaurant patrons know much less about the beef served them. They must rely on the reputation of the restaurant and previous meals consumed in particular restaurants.
With limited exceptions, information on whether the beef was produced in the United States or imported has been unavailable to consumers. While U.S. Customs’ regulations require all imported beef be labeled by country-of-origin on the bulk shipping container, the label is not required to accompany the beef to the next buyer unless imported in retail ready packages. Hence, all imported fresh or frozen beef essentially becomes U.S. beef when repackaged.
Louisiana has become the first state to mandate this labeling, however, when the 1999 Louisiana Legislature enacted legislation requiring all fresh meats sold in grocery stores beginning January 1, 2000, to indicate “American,” “Imported” or “Blended,” the latter consisting of a mix of U.S. and imported meat. The law exempted all food service use, including restaurants.
U.S. consumers may be interested in the country-of-origin of fresh or frozen beef for these reasons:
- Imported beef might differ in quality from U.S.- produced beef.
- Countries licensed to export beef to the United States differ in the degree of government control of use of specific chemicals in the production of the animals and their feeds.
- Consumers may be concerned with the stringency of regulation of slaughter and processing operations in the licensed countries.
- Some consumers prefer to purchase U.S. products over imported products.
The USDA states that all slaughter houses licensed to handle beef to be exported to the United States must meet the same requirements as those imposed on U.S. slaughter or processing plants. It also claims that all imported beef is randomly inspected at port of entry for residues or other adulterants. Now 32 countries, including Canada, Japan and Mexico, require all fresh beef to be labeled by country-of-origin at the retail meat counter.
To determine the preferences of Louisiana beef consumers concerning country-of-origin labels for fresh or frozen beef in grocery stores and restaurants, we sent a survey to 2,000 randomly selected households in eight parishes in the summer of 1999. About 18 percent of the households responded to the survey. The sample was slightly biased toward higher income, more highly educated, white and older respondents, which is typical of the response rate from unsolicited mail surveys using bulk mail rates.
Respondents overwhelmingly considered U.S. beef superior to imported beef (86 percent rated U.S. beef superior to 14 percent rating U.S. and imported beef as equal). The primary reason for the superiority of U.S. beef was its higher quality. The remaining reasons involved consumer concerns about safety.
When asked whether they favored compulsory country-oforigin labeling of fresh or frozen beef, 93 percent favored the label in grocery stores and 88 percent in restaurants. Respondents who were more likely to favor the label for grocery stores were those who (1) favor domestic durable goods to imported durable goods, (2) rate U.S. beef superior to imported beef, (3) are black or (4) are from rural areas. Respondents who were less likely to be in favor of the label were (1) older, (2) single, (3) male, (4) engaged in farming or (4) had children in the household.
Respondents who were more likely to favor the label for restaurants were those who (1) favor domestic goods to imported durable goods, (2) rate U.S. beef superior to imported beef and (3) generally read nutrition labels on food items. Males were less likely to favor the label for restaurants.
Preference for the labels did not differ with income, education level, whether there was a homemaker in the household, and whether the respondent was retired. In most issues related to food consumption, these variables are important in explaining the household’s choice.
The rate of approval of mandatory country-of-origin labeling of fresh or frozen beef in grocery stores and restaurants (averaging 91 percent) estimated from this study exceeds that of a recent national survey (76 percent).
The lower approval of mandatory country-of-origin labels for restaurant beef likely reflects the fact that consumers are more accustomed to having less information on the meats consumed in restaurants than is available on packaged meats in grocery stores.
The finding that households with single heads or households with children tend to be less supportive of the countryof- origin label needs to be examined by the domestic beef industry.
At this writing, implementation of the law is awaiting regulations that must be developed by the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry.
(This article was published in the spring 2000 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)