BILLINGS - Several years ago, Congress removed the requirement to label where beef and pork is raised and processed. And now a Billings-based cattle group is leading the campaign to get Congress to once again look at Mandatory Country Of Origin Labeling for those products.
R-CALF USA, an advocacy group for cattle ranchers, launched its "Label Our Beef -Weeks of Action" campaign, which started on Sept. 6 and runs until Sept. 16.
Several other organizations are involved in the campaign including the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union, Food & Water Watch, the Western Organziation Of Resource Councils, the National Family Farm Coalition and the United States Cattlemen's Association.
When inside the grocery store, many want to know where the food was produced.
Ranch House sells Montana and American-produced beef and pork.
"I prefer to look local," said Jason Manning, who shopped for bacon at the Ranch House Meat & Sausage Company in Billings. I prefer always to buy local, prefer to buy, you know, American made or American produced."
That's one reason there's now a push underway to reinstate mandatory country of origin labeling for beef and pork.
According to R-CALF USA, several large meat packers in the US currently import beef from out of the country, process it and ship it to stores with the USA product label.
"That label does not inform consumers as to the true origins of beef," said Bill Bullard, R-CALF USA C.E.O. "So they're being deceived, if not tricked."
Kent Bacus, executive director of government affairs with the National Cattlemens Beef Association, agrees with Bullard on the label confusion with voluntary labeling.
"Instead of having product USA let's call it processed in the USA," Bacus said. "Or let's let's create a label that's a little more truthful to what's actually happened to that product.
But Bacus says mandatory country of origin labeling is not necessary.
"Mandatory government labels have actually caused higher costs due to compliance and due to further regulatory burdens," Bacus said. "And it has actually caused greater consolidation within our industry."
Bacus says his organization along with its state affiliates supports voluntary country of origin labeling, but does not think it should be mandatory.
"We believe that we can market our products better than the federal government can," Bacus said. "And so we have a lot of concerns when there's an initiative or some kind of push to install a government label that would compete directly with private labels, that would interfere with our ability to differentiate our products to consumers."
Congress repealed the law in 2015, after the World Trade Organization ruled mandatory labeling created a trade barrier with Canada and Mexico that would cost the U.S. billions.
"It was US law for six years, and when that label was in place, there was a lot of compliance costs for producers, but it also caused an international trade fight between the Canadians and the Mexicans and the United States in the WTO," Bacus said. "The United States lost every single level of appeals within the WTO. And unfortunately, that meant that we were subject to $1 billion in retaliatory tariffs from Canada and Mexico. Those would have been applied had COOL not been repealed by Congress."
"Country of Origin Labeling was passed under our Constitution," Bullard said. "And then we had this international tribunal, who has a different agenda, determined that we were not allowed to have such a domestically passed law. And consumers in America simply were not entitled to know the origins of their beef. And so it was very political on a global level.”
But Bullard says the USA label has bipartisan support in Congress.
"Congress has just gotten back into session and we want Country Of Origin Labeling for beef to be at the forefront of the issues that they're working on," Bullard said.
Ranch House's owner, Shane Flowers, supports mandatory labeling.
"Ranchers and farmers ought to have that opportunity to have that Country Of Origin Labeling so that the customers that are aware of what they're looking for, it's easily accessible to them," Flowers said.