Billings Gazette: In Congress, 'Made in the USA' beef labeling is back on the menu

by Tom Lutey

Arenewed, made-in-America beef labeling push is drawing support from Montana’s Republican congressmen.

The latest version of the USA Beef Act was introduced last week. The bill, authored by U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds. R-S.D., requires that any beef sporting a “Product of the USA” label originate from a United States ranch. Currently, the labels are applied to beef processed at United States meatpacking plants, regardless of whether the cattle are from another country. The bill was first introduced in 2019.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines has signed on as an original co-sponsor in the Senate. Rep. Matt Rosendale is the bill’s primary sponsor in the House.

Right now, the labels aren’t working, said Jess Peterson, U.S. Cattlemen’s Association senior policy analyst.

“From a U.S. cattle producer perspective, to walk into a Costco here in town and look and see U.S. steaks sitting right there and know that means nothing? This bill would help that,” Peterson said. “I would feel pretty good if I was a Montana rancher, Wyoming rancher. We’re finally getting this clarity back.”

Peterson said the ranching groups struggled to get the Trump administration’s attention on the labeling issue and, without it, the issue went nowhere in Congress. Last month, President Joe Biden announced that beef labeling was part of his executive order on restoring competition in U.S. markets. Interest in Congress is again increasing.

Popular with ranchers, labeling schemes distinguishing U.S. beef in grocery refrigerated cases have been strongly opposed by the meatpacking industry and countries like Canada and Mexico that export cattle to meatpacking plants in the United States.

An earlier effort known as Country of Origin Labeling, or COOL, was panned by the World Trade Organization after Canada and Mexico filed a complaint calling the labeling scheme an unfair trade practice. The objecting nations, who had partnered with the U.S. Meat Export Federation in opposing COOL, said labels disadvantaged sales of Canadian and Mexican beef in U.S. supermarkets.

The WTO ruled in favor of Canada and Mexico in 2015, giving the two nations the right to impose tariffs on imported U.S. products, a move that was expected to raise the price on imports from the United States by $1.01 billion.

Congress repealed COOL in 2015 with the support of ranch groups who wanted to avoid tariffs but also called on lawmakers to come up with an alternative for COOL which had been in place four years, starting in 2011.

Some of the focus shifted to dropping labels that identified beef from other countries. Instead, some lawmakers pivoted to just identifying beef originating in the United States. The end result was “Product of the USA” stickers with no legal definition for what qualified as a United States product.

But COOL wasn’t abandoned. In May, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, and Rounds introduced a resolution calling on the United States to begin working on COOL rules acceptable to the WTO. Although country of origin labeling disappeared for beef, it remains for wild seafood, nuts, and other animal protein, like chicken and lamb.

Tester has long argued that the United States should have defended COOL before the WTO rather than abandoning COOL labels for beef, which is what the United States did.

There’s support in President Biden’s administration for labeling the U.S. beef. In July, the White House announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture would create rules assuring that only U.S. beef received “product of USA labels.” The labeling directive was part of Biden’s broad executive order promoting competition in the U.S. economy, which included several measures to improve market access for farmers and ranchers.

The choice for lawmakers, Peterson said, is to get ahead of the USDA with a labeling bill, or watch Biden fix the problem without them.