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Ag Groups Split On Proposed Country Of Origin Labeling Bills

A brightly lit open freezer displays an array of packaged meats.
Rachel Cramer
Yellowstone Public Radio
Meat on display at the Safeway grocery store in Bozeman, Feb. 17, 2021.

Farm and ranching groups want people to buy more Montana beef, but they’re split on whether proposed state level legislation would do that.

In the meat section at grocery stores, meat products like spare ribs often bear stickers: “Product of USA.”

Many ranchers say this label is misleading consumers. That’s because imported beef and pork processed and re-packaged in the US can get this label, as can the meat from livestock born in other countries and then sent to US feedlots or slaughterhouses.

A close up photo of packaged pork spare ribs focuses on text in the bottom left corner of the packages label that reads "Product of USA."
Rachel Cramer
Yellowstone Public Radio
A "Product of USA" label on spare ribs at the Safeway grocery store in Bozeman on Feb. 17, 2021.

Two bills in the Montana legislature would require grocery stores to place a sign near beef and pork products saying either “born, raised, and processed in the USA” or “imported/origin unlabeled.”

Democratic Rep. Frank Smith of Poplar sponsored House Bill 324, which received support from multiple ranchers and agriculture groups during a recent committee hearing.

“While ranchers are going out of business, Brazilian owned meat packer JBS reported third quarter profits for 2020 that grew by 770%. Something is very wrong. Montana country of origin placarding will be a start to creating an honest market for our great beef,” said Jeannie Alderson, chair of the Northern Plains Resource Council.

Northern Plains Resource Council, Montana Farmers Union and Grow Montana Policy Coalition say more transparent labeling would make it easier for consumers to choose 100% American beef and pork, which would boost prices for local livestock producers.

But opponents, including the Montana Department of Commerce, Montana Retailers Association and Montana Farm Bureau Federation say the proposed legislation would put the burden of creating transparency in the food supply chain on grocery stores.

Jay Bodner with Montana Stockgrowers Association says many retailers do not know whether cattle and swine were born, raised and slaughtered in the US.

“If these retailers can't determine that or don't have the mechanism to determine that, they're going to have to put that “imported” or “origin unlabeled” on the meat case. And as you are a consumer and you walk up to the meat counter, that's not a great marketing tool. We want to be able to provide incentive to sell more beef,” Bodner said.

Bodner also argued opportunities to promote local meat to consumers already exist with the “Grown in Montana” label, which he said the state could do more to support.

The Montana House Agriculture Committee voted Thursday to table House Bill 324.

A fiscal note attached to House Bill 324 says enacting the proposed law would cost around $140,000 the first year and around $85,000 in subsequent years to cover additional legal services, the salary and travel costs of an inspector and the development of an online database and website.

Meanwhile, Senate Bill 210, which is nearly identical to the House bill and sponsored by Helena Democratic Sen. Tom Jacobson, brought similar comments from the public and advocacy groups during a hearing Thursday.

Required labeling about the origins of beef and pork is not new.

In the early 2000s, U.S. Congress passed a law for Country of Origin Labeling or COOL for certain products, including fresh beef, pork, chicken, lamb, fish, nuts, fruits and vegetables. After some pressure from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, meat industry and trading partners, Congress pushed back the deadline for COOL to become mandatory.

In the meantime, Montana and several other states passed their own COOL laws and then sunsetted them once the federal law took effect.

But Canada and Mexico said COOL violated trade agreements by discriminating against imports of beef and pork. The referee, the World Trade Organization, ruled Canada and Mexico had the right to impose $1 billion in retaliatory import tariffs if COOL was not overturned for beef and pork.

Congress repealed COOL for beef and pork in 2015.

During the committee hearings this week, people argued about whether or not the proposed state law would violate federal law. A legal note from the legislative service concluded it would not.