R-CALF USA, Washington cattle group file suit to force implementation of country of origin labeling | TSLN.com

R-CALF USA, Washington cattle group file suit to force implementation of country of origin labeling

The Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund and one of its state affiliates filed suit against the federal government on June 19, 2017, hoping to force the implementation of country of origin labeling.

While mandatory country of origin labeling for beef was included in the 2008 farm bill and had been enforced for several years, it was repealed in December of 2015 following complaints from Canada and Mexico, and World Trade Organization approval of Canada's threatened retaliatory tariffs.

The action comes in the wake of a scandal involving bribery of high level Brazilian officials, which resulted in the sale of rotten meat and poultry.

On June 22, the USDA announced its decision to temporarily halt imports of Brazilian beef, mimicking actions taken by Chile, China, the European Union, and South Korea in March when news of the scandal broke. (See "U.S. halts imports of Brazilian Beef" on this page.)

R-CALF CEO Bill Bullard says his group and the Cattle Producers of Washington (CPoW), the two plaintiffs, believe that consumers should have the opportunity to choose domestic over foreign beef in the supermarket, and that the Meat Inspection Act, which actually calls for execution of country of origin labeling is being ignored. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is the defendant in the case.

"The suit alleges that USDA regulations that allow beef and pork to be classified as 'domestic products,' even when those meat products are imported from other countries, confuse consumers and harm American farmers," said the release.

The complaint argues that the Act requires that imported beef should, under law, be labeled with the meat's country of origin.

Current USDA rules allow meat that was raised and/or slaughtered outside of the United States, and then brought into the country for marketing purposes, to be labeled "product of USA," said R-CALF. Implementing country of origin labeling (COOL) where in only meat born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S. qualifies for the "Product of USA" label, would help reduce confusion at point of purchase, the group believes.

The more than 800 million pounds of imported beef consumed in America each year should be marked as to the country from which they were imported, based on the Meat Inspection Act, said R-CALF USA in its news release.

"The current Administration has talked a lot about supporting U.S. workers and creating U.S. jobs. Its policy on meat labeling, however, gives multinational companies an unfair advantage over ranchers whose products are raised and slaughtered here at home," said Beth Terrell of Terrell Marshall Law Group in the release. "The USDA should return to common sense labeling that gives consumers truthful information and U.S. ranchers a fair shake in the marketplace. Farmers and families should both be able to expect the U.S. government will be on their side."

South Dakota Cattlemen's Association President Larry Stomprud, Mud Butte, South Dakota, said his organization does not support government mandated COOL. "I see it as a cost, not a benefit," he said.

Mandatory COOL was enforced by USDA for several years, and did not return a benefit to the producer, Stomprud believes, and there are university studies to back up his opinion, he said. He added that he and his organization believe that private labeling programs like Certified Angus Beef and Laura's Lean Beef are evidence that voluntary labeling works.

"It wound up being a cost to the packer primarily, that was dribbled back. The producer wound up being the one that paid for it with additional cooler space or time and labor to set the chain down to switch over to Canadian carcasses or things like that," he said.

The former COOL law wasn't enforced on processed food, Stomprud said, which exempted a lot of beef, he believes.

South Dakota republican senator Ryan Maher believes COOL did benefit the cattle industry in his state.

He believes in it enough that he sponsored a bill in the 2017 legislative session that would have required South Dakota grocers to display any country of origin labeling information they had available. Current state law already requires labeling, but is not being enforced, he said. With his bill, grocers who happen to receive country of origin information on boxes of meat would have had to display a sign with the information that was available – they were not required to solicit information. Several ag groups supported the bill including the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, South Dakota Farmers Union and Dakota Rural Action, but the South Dakota Cattlemen's Association and several others lobbied against the bill, as did the South Dakota Department of Agriculture, Maher said.

Country of origin labeling was a boon to South Dakota agriculture, Maher said, helping propel cattle prices to record highs, and when the law was repealed, record market drops occurred. His fellow legislators and state officials including his state's governor need to take notice of issues that will help the cattle industry, which is the state's biggest industry and a major source of tax dollars, he said.

Some South Dakota COOL supporters are now focused on how best to force implementation of the COOL law that is already in place, which is similar to the gist of the R-CALF USA lawsuit, he said.

Maher, a restaurant owner, said he sometimes gets questions from customers regarding the origin of his beef, and he would like to have the ability to provide that information again.

R-CALF USA said that America's farmers and ranchers are forced to take lower prices for their cattle when COOL for beef is not in place because imported beef is being passed off as domestic beef in supermarkets.

"Transnational beef packers are supplanting U.S. beef production with imported beef, including from countries with questionable food safety practices," said Bill Bullard, CEO of R-CALF USA in the news release. "Unfortunately, our U.S. Department of Agriculture is helping them by making sure consumers cannot distinguish imported beef from USA beef. This is harming America's farmers and ranchers and is not what Congress intended. We hope our lawsuit helps U.S. consumers choose to buy American beef."