By Steve Cornett, editor emeritus, Beef Today
That picture is my buckaroo boots. I bought them because they had the highest top of any boots on the boot shelf at the local West Texas Western Wear. Well, that and they've got those pretty red tops.
I like high top boots with my pants tucked into them for two reasons. Laws of physics say the higher the boot top, the less chance of getting snakebit. And our place raises a remarkable number of grass burrs. If you don't have your pants stuck into your boots, and with some high tops, your pants gather those grass burrs through the day. Then they wind up in the laundry. Then they wind up in somebody's underpants, and then there's trouble I don't need.
So the point is the reason I bought the boots were the high tops. The fact that they're red was only secondary. And the fact that they are popular with the hands on the big ranches hereabouts, the boys with the taco hats on their heads and the cute blondes on their arms, was of even less consequence. But let me just note that these boots are 100% cowboy.
Imagine my surprise, then, that one day recently while checking for scorpions and the like before I donned my red boots, I noticed on the inside it says, "Made in China.” These are cowboy boots, now. Riding heels. High, red tops. As Western as Western boots can get. On the outside, at least.
Do I care? Should I care? I don't know. I have nothing against the Justin and Luchesse and Tony Lama brands I've always worn. They serve the purpose just fine, and they're made in the U.S., or at least were the last time I checked. But the tops weren't as high.
These Chinese boots fit fine. They're comfortable enough. They seem to wear like a pair of elephant hides I had once. The only thing wrong with them is they were made in China. And let me be frank: I would buy them again, over a domestically-made boot, because they have an attribute I want. They've got high tops.
I'm a boot consumer, you see. Like your customers are meat consumers.
Now, if somebody were to have surveyed me before I saw the Chinese label, and asked me if I prefer domestic over Chinese-made boots, I would have said "yes.” Would I pay more? Yes, again.
But here I am in Chinese boots, which is just about what's happening with beef consumers and country of origin labeled beef. At the Texas Cattle Feeders Association convention, two different members of a retail panel said they had received next to zero interest in the labels from consumers. Cathy East, from Safeway said she had received one call.
She described the costs as "tremendous;” however, in the form of labor, in the form of record keeping, in the form of the time it takes to spend with an auditor in your store.
The retailers said that, so far, the program has been all cost and no reward. They said the costs were considerable, especially for the stores where the meat is cut in-store.
Nobody has done the math, but both the American Meat Institute and the Food Marketing Institute—folks who probably know more than you and I and COOL supporters about what the labels are costing them—think the USDA estimate of $1.5 billion for beef in the first year may be low.
I don't know if that's true. But even if it's half that, and you divvy it out across 30 million cattle a year, you're looking at $25 a head. Dave Weaber with Food Lion, told the TCFA group he's seen no indication of interest from consumers. "I don't think our consumers are willing to pay for it (COOL), and I don't think they do pay for it,” he said.
"I think it trickles back down through the system clear to the cow-calf level through margins."
I don't know who's absorbing the cost—it might be included in the farm to retail spread which some people are so concerned about. Or it might just be coming out of cattle sellers' pockets. It's coming from somewhere.
If consumers cared, that would be one thing. But they don't. Beef demand has continued to slide because the main attributes people want in their beef are affordability and taste. They might tell surveys they care whether it comes from the U.S., but that's before they see the red tops.
We've started this trade dispute with Canada and Mexico for nothing, really. I'm a big fan of traceability. I think the day will come when true traceability will pay big rewards for everybody up and down the beef chain. I want to be able to trace a nasty bacteria all the way back to the home farm in Canada or Mexico or Iowa. But that program will, I hope, be voluntary and it will pay for itself because consumers will be willing to pay for it.
But country of origin doesn't add traceability. It just adds cost.
Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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