Take the bull by the horns, legislature: Pass Country of Origin Labeling

Guest Commentary
Gilles Stockton
and three others
Thursday, February 11, 2021

Consumers have the right to know the origin of their beef purchases, and ranchers have the right to a fair and competitive market. This is a reasonable expectation. However, since 2015 Congress specifically exempted beef and pork from labeling laws. Consumers do not know where their beef comes from, and ranchers do not have fair prices.

If you are a consumer learning of this for the first time, you might be incredulous. The last time you purchased beef from the supermarket, the labels clearly stated “USDA Graded” and “Product of the USA.” Sadly, those labels are meaningless. The USDA label does not mean that the meat actually came from this country. Beef or pork imported from any other country can legally have a label stating “Product of the USA” simply if it is re-packaged for retail within our borders.

This is why the Montana Cattlemen’s Association, the Montana Farmers Union, and the Northern Plains Resource Council are allied to ask that the Montana Legislature pass a Montana Country of Origin Labeling law. It is true, that to be fully effective, COOL needs re-instatement on the national level, but you have to start somewhere. If Montana, whose largest industry is cattle, cannot stand up for consumers and ranchers, who will?

A skeptical reader might say: “Wait a minute here, there must be more to the story. Why did Congress exempt beef and pork from the labeling law?” The proximate reason was that the World Trade Organization directed the United States government to. The actual reasons were that the criminally convicted family who owns Brazil-based JBS (the largest beef packing corporation in the world) along with the Chinese owners of Smithfield, (the US’s largest pork packing corporation), profit from the lack of COOL. JBS imports beef from Brazil, while Smithfield wants to export pork from China into the US. These foreign interests make money by slapping a “Product of USA” label on lesser quality imported meats. More money, in fact, than beef produced by hardworking Montana ranchers.

Many consumers may be fine buying imported beef, and that should be their right. However, what is not right is buying Brazilian beef while being led to believe it was born, raised, and processed in the USA. You might think that it would be a no-brainer to pass a MT COOL bill in the Legislature of the State of Montana, where cattle is the most important industry, but it is not. The 2019 Legislature refused to consider COOL.

It is hard to explain why individual legislators don’t want consumers to know the origin of their beef, but that is in fact what happened. Clearly COOL is not in the interests of multinational corporations who prop up this rigged system that cheats family ranchers and everyday consumers with “legally fraudulent” labels.

Representative Frank Smith is sponsoring the Montana Country of Origin Placarding Act at the 2021 Montana Legislature. The bill, if it isn’t killed by foreign meatpacking interests, will ask retailers to make a reasonable effort to display a sign at the meat case with country-of-origin information for beef and pork.

Why wait on the federal government to get its act together? It’s time for the Montana legislature to take the bull by the horns. Consumers have the right to know where their meat comes from, and ranchers have the right to a free and fair market. It is just that simple. Contact your legislators today and tell them to support the Montana Country of Origin Placarding Act.

Gilles Stockton, President, Montana Cattlemen’s Association

Walter Schweitzer, President, Montana Farmers Union

Jeanie Alderson, Chair, Northern Plains Resource Council

Rep. Tom Jacobson (HD21)

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