By JEANNIE ALDERSON AND NICOLAI COCERGINE | September 19, 2017
Montana has been shaped by the image of the cattle industry. Cows grazing, hardy ranching families working the land and the rough-hewn hands of butchers are all iconic images of our state’s heritage. We represent two different ends of this heritage – the rancher who raises the cattle, and the neighborhood butcher who works in the meat department of your local grocery store. Unfair trade deals have put our shared culture in jeopardy.
Many of the struggles of the American beef industry can be traced back to the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. This bad trade deal cleared the way for global meat companies to import large amounts of low-quality beef and mix it with American beef. Many Montanans have probably witnessed the endless streams of cattle trucks pouring down from Canada and wearing out our highways after NAFTA was signed.
NAFTA also removed tariffs on live cattle imports, allowing meatpacking companies to flood the U.S. market with cattle from Canada and Mexico, driving down the prices received by American ranchers and causing them to raise fewer cows. The U.S. cattle herd is now at its lowest level since 1941, which has contributed to the shutdown of 50 U.S. beef packing plants since NAFTA’s passage.
Worst of all — at the behest of the global meatpacking companies and Canada and Mexico — the World Trade Organization recently used the threat of trade sanctions to coerce Congress into repealing Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) in 2015. This took away the ability of American consumers to know where their meat comes from, and choose beef that was born, raised and slaughtered right here in the United States.
Congress repealed COOL when we needed it most. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently discovered contaminated beef from Brazil at the U.S. border with abscesses, salmonella and E. coli. This bad shipment was caught, but it underscores the clear value of consumers knowing where their meat comes from.
Losing COOL also had a devastating impact upon ranchers. With COOL in place, ranch families got as much as $2.52/pound for their steers. After COOL repeal, prices fell to as low as $1.50/pound. These low prices haven’t benefited American consumers, as beef prices stayed roughly the same from 2014 to 2016.
No matter what NAFTA apologists may promise, the road to economic prosperity for our rural communities cannot be forged through the near halving of ranch families’ income, or the loss of thousands of good meatpacking jobs. Nor does it hinge on hiding the truth from consumers about where their beef comes from.
The United States has recently reopened NAFTA for renegotiation with Canada and Mexico. Revisiting a trade agreement is a rare opportunity. It’s even rarer that the negotiations present an opportunity to support such a huge and critical portion of the American economy. That’s why the Trump administration, Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester, and Rep. Greg Gianforte should seize this moment to reinstate COOL and make NAFTA a better trade deal for hard-working families across Montana.
Jeanie Alderson is a rancher from Birney, owner of Omega Beef Inc. and treasurer of the Northern Plains Resource Council. Nicolai Cocergine is the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 4 in Butte.