RBC | Since Congress repealed mandatory Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) on beef and pork in December 2015, retail sellers have not been required to identify the country of origin of any of their beef or pork offerings. Some 20 percent of U.S. beef consumption today is imported.
Mandatory COOL was first established in the 2002 Farm Bill. Congress felt obligated to remove the requirement in late 2015 because the World Trade Organization (WTO), of which the U.S. is a party through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), authorized Canada and Mexico to levy retaliatory tariffs on any U.S. exports beyond beef and pork to such items as fruit and wine. All this is one reason President Trump continually refers to NAFTA, among other trade agreements, as “bad deals.”
State Representative Kimmi Lewis (R-La Junta) and State Senator Vicki Marble (R-Ft. Collins) sought to correct this deficit for Colorado consumers by introducing House Bill 17-1234 in the state legislature last month. The bill would require retailers to post signs next to any display of fresh beef indicating whether or not that beef is a product of the USA or if it is imported. If imported, the sign would indicate from which countries the beef came. The bill was heard in the house agriculture, natural resources and livestock committee on April 3. The Colorado Pork Producers Council turned down Rep. Lewis’ offer to include pork in the bill.
Rep. Lewis is the only livelihood-dependent agricultural producer on the house Ag Committee. She runs a cattle operation on 17,500 acres near Kim, Colo., in Las Animas County. Lewis received encouragement on the bill and “late bill” status from House Speaker Crisanta Duran (D-Denver).
“After all that,” Lewis told the Herald Times, “I was quite dismayed the Democrats strategized to kill my bill in committee.” The committee vote last Monday was 6-7 on a motion to move it out of committee with one Democrat voting for the bill and one Republican voting against it.
Advocates for the bill included the Colorado Independent Cattlegrowers Association (CICA), Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, Western Colorado Congress, Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM), Natural Grocers/Vitamin Cottage, and more than 30 individual cattle producers and consumers who were at the committee in person or spoke from one of the five sites set up around the state for remote testimony. All of the supporters believed that having identifiable USA beef in grocery stores would increase demand for USA beef and make customers who want to know where their beef is from a lot happier.
Opponents to the bill included outfits with a lot of lobbyist firepower such as the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association (CCA), Colorado Livestock Association (CLA), Colorado Farm Bureau (CFB), Colorado Retail Council (CRC), and Rocky Mountain Food Industry Association (RMFIA). These groups typically depend on Republicans to get their way, but this time it was the Democrats that supported their arguments.
The food industry group argued that while they supported a national COOL requirement, they do not support a stand-alone state requirement since a patchwork of differing state requirements would be too confusing in the supply chain. Mary Lou Chapman, representing RMFIA, also presented a letter of opposition from the North American Meat Institute. Reflecting on the letter, she suggested Colorado would be begging for a lawsuit if the bill passed, as it would be contrary to the federal Meat Inspection Act.
A couple other testifiers, including former CNCC-Rangely basketball star and graduate Korry Lewis, now a Cheyenne lawyer and membership coordinator for CICA, indicated that this is not true. She said the Meat Inspection Act does not prohibit states from exercising their own initiatives in protecting the health and welfare of their citizens.
Chris Howes, representing the Retail Council (250 large grocery stores, convenience stores and drug stores), claimed his clients “already do [signage like this] on a voluntary basis.” The expected increase in rules and signage would just be more cost forced on his clients and increase retail sellers’ liabilities. He also suggested retail stores often have a difficult time determining the source of their fresh beef.
CFB President Don Shawcroft admitted that the Farm Bureau used to be in favor of COOL, but now believes it is better done on a voluntary basis.
“There is choice out there, you can find USA beef and choose it,” he said. He described himself as a big beef cattle producer whose beef “ends up being in lots of different places.” He added that, “The national COOL law was ruled ‘not in compliance’ with trade agreements.” For the Farm Bureau being willing to succumb to the WTO “trumping” of U.S. sovereignty this seems a great departure.
Kenny Rogers, longtime board member and officer of both CCA and CLA, told the committee, “If country of origin information would really increase cattle prices for the cattle producer, I’d be as happy as a hurricane in a trailer park.” He expressed both organizations’ opposition to the bill based on concern for costs.
In contrast, Alan Lewis (no relation to Rep. Lewis), director of special projects for Natural Grocers/Vitamin Cottage, testified that there would be little to no compliance cost with Rep. Lewis’ bill.
“We already label everything in our stores whether it’s required (as in most cases) or not.” Grocers, he reported, have to know where their products are from in case of recalls or other issues. “That’s what being a grocer is all about. It’s not a burden. We want our suppliers, as well as our customers, to be healthy and successful,” he told the committee.
Rep. Perry Buck (R-Windsor) cited her having grown up with cattle production and expressed concern to Rogers about the drastic decline in cattle producers. “We need to do something to reverse these charts (referring to graphs showing the rapid declines).”
Rogers responded that there are lots of reasons for the declines, not just cattle prices or competition with imported beef. He cited constantly improving genetics and other production methods that have increased efficiencies and the pounds of production per head.
CCA executive vice-president Terry Fankhauser followed Rogers stating that the rule-making by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment could be overbearing. He raised the specter of ranchers needing to have individual animal I.D. or traceability in order for retailers to prove origin. In so doing, he ignored the testimony of Natural Grocers and others that claimed the needed information already exists with the packers.
Other than the bill sponsor, Rep. Steve Lebsock (D-Thornton) was the most engaged member of the committee, pointedly asking almost every witness a constructive question. Lebsock was the only Democrat to vote for the bill, bucking an apparent commitment among his fellow Democrats to kill it. Just before he voted, Lebsock made an impassioned plea to his fellow committee members suggesting that once in a while, “Legislators of both parties ought to be able to come together and do the right thing for Colorado. This bill is the right thing – it’s a damn good bill,” he said. “It doesn’t get any easier than this to vote yes on a good idea, advocate for our ranchers and farmers, remember your roots,” he urged.
Lebsock had described himself as the first of four Colorado generations not to be on the farm. Late last month, Lebsock announced his intention to be a candidate for Colorado Treasurer. Born in Sterling, Lebsock graduated from Westminster High School, served in the U.S. Marines, earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Metropolitan State University of Denver, served on the Thornton City Council for eight years and was elected to the State House in 2012. He chairs the House Local Government Committee.
According to Mike Callicrate, past president of OCM and a Colorado Springs farm-to-table food retailer, with the committee killing the bill, “packers supplying Colorado grocery stores with fresh beef will be able to continue to mix less expensive foreign raised beef with superior USA beef, pass it all off as U.S. product, and charge the U.S. price for all of it.”
RCALF, USA CEO, Bill Bullard of Billings, Mont., reported to the committee that the U.S. currently imports beef from 20 countries including Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Ireland, Australia, Honduras, Nicaragua and Canada. Bullard cautioned the committee that “if you vote against this bill, you will be helping the multinational meatpackers exploit U.S. producers on one end of the supply chain and consumers on the other.”
Bullard concluded after the committee had voted that, “The Democratic leadership on the committee demonstrated their allegiance to the meatpackers at the expense of Colorado cattle producers and consumers. We couldn’t be more disappointed.”