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Where's the beef (from)?

Fight over country of origin labeling heats up

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Back in the late 1990s, the Western Montana Stockmen’s Association came up with what its members thought was a good idea to better market their beef: a country of origin label.

After several unsuccessful attempts to push a country of origin labeling bill through Congress, ranchers finally got lucky last year when President George Bush signed the 2002 farm bill. That legislation carried a provision making country of origin labeling, called by its acronym COOL, voluntary until 2004, when labeling was to become mandatory.

But the ranchers soon ran up against the collective lobbying clout of the powerful meatpacking industry, which managed to get funding to implement COOL stripped from the farm bill. Congressmen in farm and ranching states are trying to get it reinstated, but the ranchers are facing a tough battle.

“This is not a new issue for us,” says Steve Pilcher, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association. Shirts and strawberries carry country of origin labeling, and there’s no reason beef and pork shouldn’t also, he says, especially now that bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, has been identified just over the border in Alberta. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is currently scrambling to meet the demands of America’s two biggest beef export customers, Japan (where BSE was identified in September 2001) and Korea, which want labels on the beef they buy guaranteeing that cattle have been born, raised and slaughtered in a BSE-free country. Japan has set a Sept. 1, 2003 deadline for labeling compliance.

The national school lunch act requires that beef served up to the nation’s school children come from domestic cattle only, with a program in place guaranteeing it.

With such demand for labeling, then, one has to wonder, what’s the beef?

In a word, says Bill Bullard, it’s the meatpackers. Bullard is CEO of R-CALF USA, or Rancher and Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America, a national, non-profit advocacy group for the ranching industry headquartered in Billings. The meatpacking industry is highly concentrated, with only four meatpacking corporations controlling more than 80 percent of the business. That has pitted ranchers against Con-Agra, Tyson, Cargill, and Farmland in the COOL debate, says Bullard.

“The packers opposed COOL from the very beginning,” he says. “It’s our belief that the reason the meatpackers oppose this is that it takes away the tremendous amount of market power they have.”

Currently, the meatpacking industry can pick and choose where it buys its beef. Meatpackers can, says Bullard, buy imported beef, pack it, sell it without identifying the country of origin, and profit by riding on the reputation of well-regarded American beef producers.

Not so, argues Mark Klein, corporate spokesman for Cargill. “I think both retailers and many livestock producers oppose COOL because it will be burdensome to everyone from consumers to ranchers. It’s a good vote-getter, but it’s bad policy.”

Klein says beef and pork cannot be marketed through country of origin labels as easily as clothing or produce. Grapes, for example, are grown on a farm somewhere, harvested, packed, labeled and shipped. Likewise clothing, which is sewn somewhere by someone, labeled and shipped to market. Cattle, on the other hand, might make many stops between birth and slaughter, and verifying the paper trail of origin can be a daunting, perhaps unrealistic task, he says.

“I’m not sure the livestock industry has figured out how to do that, and by the time the animal comes to us there will have to be too much documentation,” Klein says.

The livestock industry, counters Pilcher, has indeed figured out how to track cattle through their life cycle. There are at least three workable tracking methods. Old-fashioned branding, or ear-tagging, leaves a paper trail and could be used to verify origin, he says. The Montana Stockgrowers Association has partnered with MSU on the Montana Beef Network, which records all ear-tagged calves in an electronic database; and the Department of Homeland Security is working on a method to locate and identify any stock animal that has been in contact with a diseased animal within 48 hours.

Last week, Rep. Dennis Rehberg tried to reinstate funding for COOL in the agricultural appropriations bill. According to his aide, Brad Keena, Rehberg twisted arms throughout the weekend in an effort to get fellow representatives to revive COOL funding. But his amendment, co-sponsored with Rep. Darlene Hooley (D-OR), failed on a vote of 193-208.

The meatpacking opposition expected fewer votes in favor of reinstating COOL, so even though the Rehberg amendment failed, the high number of votes “sent a signal to the Senate that a lot of people support it,” says Keena.

Senators Max Baucus and Conrad Burns both support COOL funding. “Opponents of COOL may have had their way in the House, but they’re going to have a fight waiting for them in the Senate,” says Baucus.

Bullard, however, isn’t confident that the Senate votes will be there to support COOL. Regardless, R-CALF USA is already looking to the next big fight when they take on the meatpacking monopoly. Already, two bills are pending in Congress that would ban meatpacking ownership of livestock.

For Pilcher and the Western Montana Stockmen’s Association, the issue is a simple one that combines the desire to make more money with patriotism and food safety. “We proposed it as a marketing tool, not only as a patriotic gesture, but for health reasons. Our hope is that it adds value to the product that is our livelihood,” he says. “And we also hope the producer shares in that added value. We’re trying to put more money back in the rancher’s pocket.”

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