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Where was the beef? [Commentary]

A decision last week by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, upholding federal regulations requiring that meat labels state where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered, is a win for consumers, public health and American meat producers.

It means that mystery meat from third-world sweat shops will be far less de rigueur for the discerning public, along with the substantial health risks associated with food from questionable sources. As detailed in a number of books — particularly Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" (1906), Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation (2001) and Michael Moss' "Salt, Sugar, Fat" (2013) — the dangers of processed food and processed meat are real and frightening.

Mr. Moss, A New York Times investigative reporter who coined the term "pink slime" in a 2009 Pulitzer-prize winning series on beef safety, showed how meat-grinding facilities and slaughterhouses often had no accountability in the event of an outbreak of E-coli and other deadly diseases. In fact, Mr. Moss showed in his reporting that some factories paid off inspectors to issue passing health inspection grades on meat packing facilities that were far less than sanitary, and that they couldn't trace the origin of a bad E-coli outbreak easily.

Knowing where meat came from will allow far better tracking of the sources of contaminated meat. Mr. Schlosser's book covered how the American public was eating hundreds of pounds of chemical-infused meat of low grades from mass market factories with frequently-unsafe practices. Sinclair's novel exposed galling conditions within the meat industry in the early 20th century, leading to a public outcry.

Since Sinclair, new abuses have arisen. The laissez faire American government has allowed the meat producing industry to import meat from countries that don't have the same quality standards as the U.S., then sell it to an often duped public.

The case decided last week validates a federal regulation on labeling finalized last year. The public, ever-eager for organic products and open-range meat, will now get to know where their beef came from, grew up and died. (Perhaps instead of "Where's the beef?" Clara Peller should have been asking "Where was the beef?" in that famous 1980s Wendy's commercial.)

While some in the meat industry fought the labeling, it's a win for American ranchers and their cattle. A friend of mine owns a ranch in Wyoming, and a visit there several years ago let me see in person how cattle are fed and how their lives are so much different when ranchers must adhere to standards of quality.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture already imposes standards on meat quality, be it USDA prime, choice or select. But those standards don't tell a consumer anything about the meat's origin. The federal labeling regulations do. Additionally, as organic meat departments become more and more popular, and as farm-to-table restaurants become more and more the choice of restaurant-goers, the industry will have to fall in line. As an investor in a new Baltimore farm-to-table restaurant, I am proud to be part of an establishment that tells our guests where our meat came from. In fact, our menu even lists many of the farms that provide the food our guests eat, where the animals are treated in a responsible manner and are raised on open grass before slaughter.

The quality of food, when the source is known, tends to be a lot better. This is a fact trumpeted proudly by even some fast-food providers like Chipotle, and most Halal and Kosher meat providers where religious-based standards ensure a better quality than the factory-produced meat.

The American Meat Institute, the trade group that was behind the lawsuit challenging the regulations, may not like that consumers will now see labels such as: "born in USA, raised in Guatemala, and slaughtered in Mexico," but perhaps they may feel differently when more and more consumers buy meat that instead says "born, raised, and slaughtered in the USA."

Thomas Maronick Jr. is a Baltimore lawyer, radio host of "The Tom Moore Show" on AM 680 WCBM and investor in The Farmstead Grill, a newly-opened farm to table restaurant in Baltimore. His email is tommooreradio@yahoo.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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