As Labor Day approaches, and with it the end of the summer barbecue season, I’ve started to think about which proteins will get grill marked for the occasion at my family’s picnic. But my thoughts keep getting stuck on recent actions by Congress to roll back the country of origin labeling law, known as COOL, for chicken, pork and beef.

COOL was made law in 2002, fully implemented by 2009 and is now supported by 90 percent of consumers, according to the American Consumer Federation. It requires that retailers let buyers know where the animals that yielded the meat they stock were born, raised and slaughtered.

The U.S. House of Representatives in June voted to repeal COOL after Canada and Mexico complained to the World Trade Organization, asserting the law was unfair to foreign hog farmers and cattle ranchers. The World Trade Organization ruled in favor of Canada and Mexico on four separate occasions, and those countries have threatened to impose retaliatory tariffs on the United States.

The Senate has yet to decide on the law’s final fate, but at this early stage in the upper chamber’s proceedings, support exists for making some version of the labeling law voluntary.

This national labeling issue could simply be one more reason Maine meat eaters should consider relying on local farmers for their protein fix.

If you are able to buy directly from a farmer you trust, all you have to do to learn where your pork chop was born, raised and slaughtered is to ask.

But according to a letter drafted this summer by the Maine Grass Farmers Network to retailers, restaurants and institutions that sell and serve locally sourced meat and poultry, it’s not always that simple.

As the demand for local proteins has increased, so have the instances of distributors and farmers misrepresenting the products they sell, the letter claims.

The letter lays out steps retailers, restaurateurs and institutional buyers can take to curb future green-washing on this front. All meat and poultry purchased should come with a USDA or ME state approved label. Any value-added claims made about the product on this label (such as if it’s organic or grass-fed) can be listed only if the claims have been evaluated and found to be true by inspection.

“There is a significant paper trail in place. It’s a matter of educating buyers at all levels how to use it,” said Richard Kersberger, professor of sustainable dairy and forage systems at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

If individuals, farms or suppliers make special claims about their products verbally, and those claims are not on their labels, they are suspect, the letter explains, and should not be passed on to customers further down the retail chain.

The letter suggests all distributors visit the farms from which they source products to get a firm understanding of what the farm can realistically supply. For example, since there are only two filet mignon of beef on any cow, a farm that rears only five head of cattle for a particular slaughter can deliver only 10 beef filet mignon at that point in time.

Following this advice will amount to a transference of trust that passes from the farmer, through the middleman, down to the eater, explains Gabe Clark of Cold Springs Ranch in New Portland, the Maine Grass Farmers Network’s board president. It’s a chain of communication that ensures eaters are getting the true value of the product they have paid for.

BULGOGI BURGERS WITH QUICK PICKLES AND SPICY MAYONNAISE

Bulgogi is very flavorful Korean beef barbecue, typically made with thinly sliced beef and served with a host of pickled sides. The concept easily transfers to ground beef, giving the traditional all-American burger made with locally sourced ground beef a twist. Gochujang sauce, a Korean fermented chili paste, adds the heat here and can be found in most Asian grocery stores. Or replace it with the more popular Sriracha sauce if that’s already in your fridge.

Makes 4 burgers

QUICK PICKLES:

2 tablespoons sugar

2 teaspoon kosher salt

½ cup distilled white vinegar

2 pickling cucumbers, trimmed and thinly sliced

4 radishes, trimmed and thinly sliced

SPICY MAYONNAISE:

¼ cup mayonnaise

1 to 2 teaspoons gochujang or Sriracha sauce

BURGERS:

1 pound ground, local 100 percent grass-fed beef

2 whole scallions, trimmed and finely chopped

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1½ teaspoons sesame oil

1½ teaspoons finely chopped garlic

1½ teaspoons grated ginger

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

4 hamburger buns

4 large pieces of leafy lettuce

To make pickles, combine ¼ cup hot water with sugar and salt, stirring until they have dissolved. Add vinegar, cucumbers and radishes. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, but up to 12.

Drain for 10 minutes before attempting to use in the assembly of the burger sandwich.

To make the spicy mayonnaise, combine the mayonnaise and hot sauce. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, but up to 12.

To make the burgers, combine beef, scallions, soy sauce, brown sugar, sesame oil, garlic, ginger and pepper in a bowl. Form mixture into 4 patties and refrigerate for at least 1 hour but up to 12.

Grill the burgers over medium heat (this is important, cooking them over high heat will cause the sugar to char) until they reach desired doneness.

To assemble burgers, top each bun bottom with lettuce, then some quick pickles, a cooked burger and a slather of spicy mayonnaise.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer and tester, and cooking teacher in Brunswick. Contact her at [email protected]


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