Some Thoughts on COOL

What started out as a way to place a hurdle to imports of meat into this country and thereby protect producers from foreign competition, has been wrapped up in a nice package of consumer information/awareness and now is finally coming to some reduced form realization.

The contamination of various consumer products, both food and hard goods that has made the news over the last couple of years is giving a patina of legitimacy to these kinds of measures. From lead paint on children's toys to obscure relatives of the more common forms of salmonella on items shipped into this country make all of this seem more compelling. A cousin of this movement is the health department of NYC requiring fast food places like McDonalds to advertise the calorie content of its various offerings directly on the overhead menu board from which consumers mull their choices prior to purchase. Nevermind that a wall hanging reveals this information (and lots more) or that it can be readily viewed both on the web and in little booklets that are available on the counter.

It would be nice (and far less costly) if the motive for these actions were exactly lined up with the rules which are eventually drawn up and get forced upon businesses and the consuming public. This would result in far less deadweight economic loss (money spent for benefits that are of dubious value or non-existent). Not to mention the unintended consequences which always befall these foggy efforts.

The social benefits and costs of forms of traceability are interesting on paper but much less real (except for the costs) when actually thought out. What the consumer probably doesn't understand is the implication and effect of traceability and therefore whether or not they want to pay the extra cost for it.

First of all, traceability does not guarantee you as an individual anything about the meat or other food you are about to consume. Just because it has a number on the package doesn't mean by the time you consume it, it hasn't been through any number of contaminating processes including those inflicted by you when you leave your grocercies in a hot car trunk while you pick the kids up at the day care. Nothing in the number protects you from the teenage stock boy that lets a few packages fall off the cart on the way out of the back room cooler to the meat case, only discovering them a few hours later, and to avoid the awaiting lecture from the supervisor, sneaks them into the retail case, etc. etc.

What it does mean is that if you are killed by some contamination you consume like bacteria added in the processing stage, somebody in government may be able to save your neighbor by issuing a recall before he eats his package. Unless he froze his for consumption a few months later though, I wouldn't hold my breath. Most people don't realize that the cost they are paying says nothing about the quality or fitness for consumption of that package in the fridge. Some of these schemes do however, limit the cost to processors if a recall is required since targeting lots is a lot cheaper than recalling all product by day(s) of processing.

Next, almost every new requirement of this kind which gets imposed on the food system virtually greases the slide toward increased scale and vertical integration. Brian Buhr (now the newly minted Head of the Ag Econ department at the University of Minnesota--congratulations Brian!, see reply to my previous blog Moving Bubbles to check out his keen insights) and I spent a couple of weeks in the EU a few years back ourselves tracing traceability chains in various food animal production schemes and documenting their methods of information transfer etc.

One of the clearest conclusions was that the only effective implementation (both in terms of cost and accuracy) was being carried out by fully integrated chains where reasonably full control of the process was in the hands of a single decision-maker.

So what started out in COOL as a means to help the little livestock producer protect his market from global competition, in fact is the next nail in the coffin of "independent" production. The implemented version just wasn't hit very hard yet so it is sticking out a bit awaiting the next blow in a couple of years.

On a side note, when Brian and I visited the egg traceability scheme in Bonn, Germany we saw how the numbers stamped on every egg gave consumers enough information to not only visit the farm but touch the building on the farm where the egg was laid.

One of the numbers indicated country of origin. When I asked the cab driver on the way back to the train station which number was most important to him when he bought eggs (there is one for technology: free range, industrial, organic, country of origin, farm location etc. etc.) he said without doubt, country of origin. Further probing revealed that he wanted only German eggs. When I tried to tell him he was a good German patriot for helping the local producers, he quickly disabused me of that and said the only reason he chooses German eggs is that they are fresher since they are produced in his own country.

I didn't have the heart to tell him that the ones indicating they came from France might have been shipped in yesterday, a day after laying, while the ones bearing the German number might have been in the store for weeks or more.