The Spokesman-Review: Sue Lani Madsen: Beef’s beef with USDA over imports

A small herd of cattle graze north of Albuquerque, N.M. American producers and ranchers are suing the USDA over its country of origin labeling rules for beef, saying they should be as strict as those governing other products. (Susan Montoya Bryan / AP)

By Sue Lani Madsen | March 17, 2018

Beef. It’s what’s for dinner. Or so goes the slogan of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

But the NCBA is not a plaintiff in a suit attempting to restore country of origin labeling for beef. Leading the lawsuit, which aims to support free trade and protect consumers, is R-CALF USA, an acronym for Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers of America.

Joining the suit is the organization Cattle Producers of Washington.

Ranchers are usually politically conservative, although there’s diversity within the stereotype. What cattle ranchers do have in common is stubbornness to survive in the independent cattle business.

NCBA is squarely on the side of protecting the 85 percent of the beef market controlled by four multinational corporations, hiding behind “packers in hats,” as R-CALF’s CEO Bill Bullard said in a 2017 response to an NCBA attack over the lawsuit.

R-CALF’s public sin, according to the NCBA, is an “unholy alliance” with Public Justice, an activist legal foundation based in Washington D.C. Public Justice declares its mission is to “combat social and economic injustice … predatory corporate conduct and government abuses.” It leans politically progressive, but shares common ground with ranchers when it comes to corporate bullying in the food industry.

Arguments in the case of R-CALF USA and Cattle Producers of Washington vs. the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue were heard this week in U.S. District Court in Spokane. According to David Muraskin, an attorney with Public Justice, “Perdue has not gotten the memo. This is part of supporting American production, easiest thing in the world for the Trump administration to fix. All they have to do is tell USDA to follow the law as already passed by Congress.”

The case hinges on a conflict between the 1930 Tariff Act and USDA interpretation of the Federal Meat Inspection Act. It’s a case study in how laws passed by Congress are undermined by regulations adopted by agencies, and lead frustrated citizens to tackle the problem through the courts.

The Tariff Act requires imported articles be marked to “indicate to an ultimate purchaser in the United States the English name of the country of origin of the article.” The only exception is if the importing middleman “substantially transforms” the imported product. Then the importer is considered the ultimate purchaser, the country of origin label removed and the newly transformed product labeled as Product of USA.

If you recently bought a pair of running shoes for Bloomsday, it may have been assembled in the United States using parts fabricated elsewhere. The label will say something like “Made in Sri Lanka, finished in U.S.A.” Past court cases have ruled this isn’t enough transformation to remove the labeling requirement. If it’s not all U.S. sourced and produced, it’s not a Product of USA. Fruit, vegetables and nuts are labeled. Everything imported requires country of origin labeling.

But under USDA rules, grinding a side of imported beef or merely rewrapping a package substantially transforms your dinner. A package of ground beef stamped Product of USA may have originated in one or more of 19 countries exporting beef into the U.S.

Willard Wolf of Valleyford, an icon in the U.S. cattle industry and closely following the lawsuit, cited three key tests for fair trade under NAFTA or any trade agreement. “There has to be parity in the exchange rate through tariffs. Second, the same food safety requirements imposed on interstate commerce have to apply to imports. And third, industry safety is critical, with disease control required through vaccination or quarantine.”

R-CALF’s Bullard added a fourth test: “Meat needs to be identified as to its origin. That’s a market attribute consumers could use as a proxy for food safety or because they wish to support a particular set of production standards.”

Ironically, the four major packers recognize the value of local production and have developed brands touting local roots. Some packages say “From cattle born, raised and harvested in USA.” And some just say “Product of USA.” Or is it?

Muraskin described Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson as “incredibly attentive, clearly had read the material and had specific questions. That’s all we can hope for.” A decision is not expected for several months.