COOL bills being discussed in Montana and Oklahoma
February 15, 2019
It's cool to eat American beef, but it's not COOL, as in Country of Origin Labeling-cool.
Some producers in Montana and Oklahoma are working to make COOL a law in their states.
In Montana, a hearing was held on February 12 for Senate Bill 206, requiring country-of-origin placarding for beef and pork at retail stores in the state. The bill was introduced by Senator Al Olszewski (R-Kalispell) and would require retailers to display a placard at counters, with labels for three different categories of meat: 1) meat that is born, raised and processed in the U.S.; 2) meat that is processed outside the U.S.; and 3) meat that is only processed in the U.S. As federal law currently stands, beef and pork imported from other countries can be labeled "Product of the USA" even if the meat is only processed or packaged in the U.S.
COOL labeling is not new at the state level in Montana.
In 2005, a COOL bill was introduced in the state legislature. With that bill, retail labeling was voluntary, and when COOL at the federal level was passed in 2009, the Montana law was superseded by the federal law.
In 2015, the federal law was repealed.
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The Montana Stockgrowers Association is not in favor of the bill, said Jay Bodner, executive vice-president of the Association, for several reasons.
The proposal does not do what country-of-origin labeling is supposed to do, Bodner said. "This bill has more to do with the processing of meat." The three categories are not clear, and the definition of "processing" can mean nearly anything, including the repackaging that big grocery stores might do with foreign beef. "There are a lot of holes in this bill," he said. "With the way it's written, everything (including foreign beef) is processed in the U.S. Even if the beef is from Brazil, it's being processed in the U.S."
The bill also makes retailers responsible for the identification and placarding of the beef. "This bill requires a lot of responsibility on the part of the retailers," Bodner said. "They're supposed to identify the product and label it, and they were never included in the discussion of the development of this bill." Costs incurred from identification and labeling will be borne by the Department of Business and Labor, who will also be able to levy fines if placarding isn't done or done correctly. SB 206 "requires extensive rule-making but places the rule making responsibility not within the Department of Livestock but in the Department of Business and Labor," he said.
If the state is to promote its beef effectively, Bodner says, it needs to work with everyone in the food chain involved. "We need to coordinate our efforts with other sectors of the food chain and this bill doesn't get us there," he said.
And there may be some issues with the bill's legality. If it were to pass, it would contradict the Federal Meat Inspection Act. "The feds label (beef) products and states can't," Bodner said. "The reason behind that is you want consistency. You don't want one state doing something, and another state doing something else, creating complete confusion among consumers."
Walter Archer, a long-time rancher from the Broadus area, has a different view of SB 206. He's in favor of it. "We feel like the federal government let us down when COOL was repealed," he said. Having a form of labeling for meat sold in Montana is helpful to the industry, he thinks. "We try to raise the best quality of beef we can, and that's always been our goal. We have to meet some standards, rules and regulations, and most are to improve the quality of the meat we produce," Archer said. "Other countries don't have to do that, and we feel like we're getting short changed in the market place."
Archer is disappointed that the Stockgrowers have chosen to oppose the bill. "Looking at the big picture, they seem to have some of the same concerns we do. It's a matter of how we go about getting them addressed." Other opponents of the bill are the Montana Farm Bureau, the Montana Chamber of Commerce, the Montana Retail Association, and the ACLU. The Montana Farmers Union and the Montana Cattlemen Association support the bill.
Bodner doesn't dismiss the fact that Montana and U.S. beef is some of the best in the world, but he doesn't believe SB 206 achieves the goal of country-of-origin labeling. "Everybody supports the concept that we want to label our meat but a good idea does not always result in a well-written bill."
SB 206 does include language regarding cell culture meat, or fake meat, which is something both Archer, a thirty-year member of the Northern Plains Resource Council, and the Montana Stockgrowers Association, support.
About 1,450 miles southeast of Helena, in Oklahoma City, Okla., another labeling bill was introduced in the Oklahoma Legislature.
Rex Duncan, lobbyist for the Oklahoma Independent Stockgrowers Association, a former legislator and district attorney, is working on Oklahoma House Bill 2428.
The bill is similar to Montana's, in requiring retailers to label beef, but it labels beef as Oklahoma grown and spells out definitions differently.
"Official Oklahoma Beef" is defined as beef products from cattle born, exclusively raised, fed, slaughtered and packaged in Oklahoma. Cattle meeting those requirements would get the "Official Oklahoma Beef" label. An "Oklahoma Beef Producer" who wants to use the official label would be someone who sells or offers for sale, beef products from cattle born, exclusively raised, fed, slaughtered and packaged in Oklahoma. HB 2428 would not require labeling for "Official Oklahoma Beef;" labeling would be voluntary.
This is the second year a labeling bill has been brought to the state legislature; last year's bill never got a hearing.
Montana SB 206 was heard in the Senate Ag Committee on Feb. 12, with quite a few proponents and opponents present. The bill's next step is for the committee to take executive action to move it out of committee, leave it, or kill it.