Great Falls Tribune: ‘Montanans should be able to choose for themselves’: Tester backs bill to restore food label law

by David Murray

For almost two decades, U.S. ranchers and feedlot owners have been pressing Congress to enforce Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) standards on beef and pork raised and processed in the United States. Early on that effort met with success; whether it was raised and slaughtered in the U.S, or simply shipped here from another country, processed, and arbitrarily labeled “USA.”

Federal legislation mandating American consumers be accurately informed about where their steaks and bacon comes from was first passed by Congress in 2005.

Those COOL requirements were quickly faced with legal challenges from within the World Trade Organization (WTO). Mexico and Canada threatened to impose more than $1 billion in tariffs against the United States unless labeling was removed. As a result of this pressure, in 2015 President Barack Obama signed a bill removing COOL requirements for beef and pork. In turn, USDA Secretary Vilsack issued a statement that the COOL rule would no longer be enforced for those commodities.

The beef industry, nationally and in Washington, has been divided over whether to bring the labels back ever since.

In the six years that have followed since the repeal of COOL, Montana ranchers have weathered increasingly miniscule profit margins while the big four multinational meatpacking corporations, JBS, Cargill, Tyson and National Beef, have raked in record profits.

“There is a crisis in rural American,” said Justin Tupper, vice-president of the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association at a Senate Ag Committee meeting last June. “We are losing our producers at an alarming rate, all the while watching big corporate feeders and packers making record profits with the threat of vertical integration hanging over our heads.

“Most of the ranchers who are selling their calves at weaning time are seeing those calves sell for less than $1,000 a head,” he continued. “That amounts to a less than 1% return on investment; an incredibly risky business. For those who sell all the way to fat cattle; a finished steer is worth somewhere around $1,600 today. Packers could buy that steer and sell it for beef alone, not counting by-products, for over $2,800 a head for a gross profit margin of over 80%.”

On Friday, Montana Sen. Jon Tester announced his support of a bipartisan Senate bill to reintroduce country-of-origin labeling regulations within the next few years.

“Because of a short-sighted change in 2015 the U.S. can no longer require country-of-origin labeling on beef products,” Tester said while speaking at the Montana Farmers Union office in Great Falls.

In Washington:Cattle ranchers sue to return country-of-origin labeling

“This puts American ranchers who adhere to the strictest safety standards and protocols in the world … on an even playing field, and would ensure that beef raised in the United States is labeled ‘Product of the USA.’ ” Tester said. “It tasks the United States trade representative to work with the Secretary of Agriculture to develop a World Trade Organization (WTO) compliant way to reinstate Country of Origin Labeling. If after a year the United States trade representative is unable to find a workable solution then mandatory Country of Origin Labeling will automatically be reinstated.”

Tester appeared with local beef industry representatives including Montana Farmers Union President Walt Schweitzer.

“These corporate monopolies have the best Congress money can buy,” Schweitzer said of the packing corporations influence in Congress. “The same four corporate monopolies that process 84% of the pork and beef in the United States are the same four corporate monopolies that process the same amount of beef and pork in Canada and Mexico. They also process most of the beef in Brazil, Australia – every major exporting country in the world. And they don’t want you to know the difference. (They) can make more money if they can mislead the consumers into buying foreign beef with a phony USA product label on it.”

Tester has long supported the reintroduction of COOL. He said he fully anticipates corporate packing interests will forcefully oppose the newly composed Senate bill on the grounds that it will impose unreasonably expensive demands upon packers to track and label the inflow of meat from multinational sources.

“The big packers will tell you that can’t keep the meat separated, but they can,” Tester said. “They just don’t want to because they’re getting a big advantage in the marketplace with a USDA seal. They’re going to tell us how this isn’t going to work and it’s going to be the end of the world, but the bottom line for me is … our cow/calf operators are going broke. If we don’t do something, our food supply chain is going to change and it ain’t going to change for the better.”

Country-of-origin labeling is just one component of a larger menu of reforms U.S. beef producers are demanding of Congress. Groups like R-CALF and the Montana Stockgrowers Association are also pushing for legislation demanding greater transparency in how market cattle prices are set, and stronger enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act which regulates trade practices within the meatpacking industry.

“Giving the United States’ Department of Agriculture subpoena authority to enforce the Packers and Stockyards Act; I think that will bring a lot of folks to town and make them understand that they can’t continue to consolidate and have no competition in the marketplace,” Tester said of the broader goal. “Make them have honest capitalism where competition is the driver. I think you’ll see more people get into the field … processing, butchering … if they’re able to employ more direct marketing and move the ball forward.

“Montanans should be able to choose for themselves whether they buy foreign beef from overseas or to buy beef they know was raised and processed right here in the good old USA,” Tester concluded.