Federal policy of beef labeling divides local ranchers

Labeling beef has turned into an international trade issue, and has divided opinions of local ranchers and national advocates.

A federal policy that went into effect in 2013 required meat packers to list where an animal was born, raised and slaughtered on the packaging. This was one of the latest changes in mandatory country of origin labeling rules, also known as MCOOL, that apply to beef, veal, pork, lamb, goat and chicken. The first version went into effect during 2009. The rule has been winding its way through federal district court.

Canada and Mexico, two of America's largest trading partners, argue that the regulation results in American meat packers paying less for their cattle. Representatives of those countries have brought their case to the World Trade Organization and are set to have their case heard this week. Canada and Mexico have threatened taxes on U.S. exports, that would hurt many industries.

Local rancher Al Heaton, who is involved with the National Cattlemen's Association, is generally against inviting greater government regulation into the industry.

"If this was a valid action, it would be something that someone would take up as a marketing tool," said Heaton.

The spokesman for the National Cattlemen's Association, Chase Adams, said the rules result in discrimination against Canada and Mexico and have not boosted demand for U.S. beef.

Prices for beef have been relatively high recently. Increased demand from outside the U.S. and the lowest cattle numbers in 60 years have driven the market, Adams said.

Drew Gordanier, president of the Southwest Colorado Livestock Association, said the rules help American producers by giving consumers the choice to buy American beef.

"U.S. cattle producers raise the best beef in the world," Gordanier said.

Bill Bullard, CEO of R CALF USA, a national advocacy organization, said the fact that Mexico and Canada are bringing a case to the World Trade Organization is proof that the labeling is good for American producers.

"COOL is absolutely essential for U.S. cattle producers to compete," Bullard said.

He also considers the labeling a food safety issue. He used the 2003 case of mad cow disease being discovered in Canada as an example of how foreign cattle is not raised to the same standard as American cattle.

Some advocacy groups called for the recently passed 2014 Farm Bill to amend the labeling rules. But the bill made no changes. Now the regulations will be reviewed by the WTO, as they simultaneously make their way through federal court.

"This issue brings home to everyone's kitchen table how we have given up U.S. sovereignty and handed it over to a foreign tribunal," Bullard said.

Adams, on the other side of the issue, referred to a recent study by Kansas State University that showed most consumers are not very familiar with the labeling requirements and they have not driven sales.

"When COOL results in tariffs and less demand for exports, that will not be a positive market signal to rebuild herds," he said.