Tri-State Livestock News: Letter to the editor: The Montana Farm Bureau Should Apologize For Opposing Country of Origin Labeling.

by Gilles Stockton, Grass Range, Montana | May 3, 2019

Giles Stockton

Instead of apologizing to Montana’s beef consumers and cattle ranchers, the Montana Farm Bureau (MFB) in an article/press release (“State Mandated Placarding Is Not COOL”) chose instead to double down on the half-truths and innuendos used to kill Montana Country of Origin Labeling (Mt-COOL).

Senator Al Olszewski of Kalispell introduced SB 206 to reinstate COOL in Montana and advanced a bill based on a 2005 Mt-COOL law. The 2005 law had a sunset clause for when a National COOL was implemented which happened in 2008. At that time the Montana law was retired.

The point of the 2005 Mt-COOL bill was to put Montana clearly on the record of supporting Country of Origin Labeling for beef. The strategy worked. Unfortunately, this process has to be repeated because Congress in 2015 precipitously rescinded National COOL with no debate and no public input. We should note that Congress only rescinded labeling for beef and pork. Labeling requirements continue for lamb, seafood, poultry, tomatoes, grapes, underwear, electronics, cars. In short everything except for beef and pork. Subsequent to that Congressional decision, cattle prices collapsed costing Montana’s economy a billion dollars a year.

The governments of Canada and Mexico filed a trade challenge to the label requirements for beef and pork and the World Trade Organization (WTO) tribunal declared the US-COOL law for beef and pork trade illegal. MFB alleges that the US had exhausted all of its appeals but that was not true, the legal wrangling was not over by a long-shot. Even if it was, the WTO tribunal that ruled against US-COOL was blatantly biased. The entire WTO trade adjudication process is undemocratic and unaccountable. This country should never have entered into trade agreements that allows unaccountable international panels to overrule how we American citizens democratically decide to conduct our own affairs.

The WTO ruling was simply not rational. If the fact that the United States required labeling of beef is somehow trade illegal, then what about all of the other label requirements, or what about the country of origin labeling requirements that other countries impose on beef imported from the USA? If beef labeling is not allowable then no labeling should be allowed. Obviously, this is not the case, so we can only conclude that the WTO Tribunal and the 2015 Congress that rescinded COOL did so specifically to financially benefit the beef packing cartel.

The MFB further stated that they had to oppose Senator Olszewski’s Mt-COOL bill because of the excessive burden it would have put on Montana retailers. In the article MFB said they were particularly concerned about small retailers who would be unable to get country of origin information from their beef suppliers.

Let’s leave aside for the moment that retailers like Albertsons and Walmart have the market power to require any kind of information from any of its suppliers, or that Sysco, which supplies most small groceries with much of their produce, also has that kind of market power. The point of Mt-COOL is that if the retailers are never required to ask their suppliers about the origin of their beef, they will never get that information, and consumers of beef will never know.

In the SB-206 hearing, Senator Frank Smith of Popular observed that small retailers in his district are in favor of labeling, in fact they would like the opportunity to feature more Montana produced beef. A lot of imported beef is currently fraudulently labeled “product of USA” making it difficult for Montana natural and grass-fed beef producers to distinguish their beef in the retail market at a price high enough to compensate them for their efforts.

MFB also said that they opposed a clause in the draft bill that allowed for penalties for fraudulent labeling of beef by retailers. This clause was a holdover from the 2005 Mt-COOL law. However, the penalties were specifically only for intentional fraud, not mistakes or for receiving incorrect information from suppliers. Nonetheless, Sen Olszewski indicated that he was willing to support an amendment to strike this clause. The MFB failed to offer this amendment.

MFB’s article goes on to brag that they supported SJ 16, a resolution which calls for “… Congress to pursue effective WTO-compliant COOL rules for beef and pork.” What the article does not acknowledge is that this resolution calls for voluntary COOL which is already the law of the land. Beef and pork packers can voluntarily supply consumers with country of origin information any time they so desire. That they do not means that they do not support born, raised, and processed in the USA beef. Instead the only labeling currently seen in meat cases is the fraudulent “Product of USA” labels on imported beef.

It should be noted that the MFB was not alone in its disingenuous campaign to kill Mt-COOL. The Montana Stockgrowers Association also lobbied hard to kill Mt-COOL.

The organizations that were working for Montana’s consumers and ranchers are the Montana Cattlemen’s Association, the Montana Farmers Union, and Northern Plains Resource Council. Members of those organizations should be proud of their organizations efforts to give beef consumers the labeling information they demand and Montana cattle producers the transparent markets they deserve.

The struggle to restore COOL is not over. Farm Bureau has a long-standing policy directive in favor of COOL which they apparently forgot in their anti-COOL lobbying, but in the future, there will be efforts to pass a national COOL law. MFB is invited to become a part of that effort. If we work together it will soon be possible to have labels proudly proclaiming Born, Raised, and Processed in the USA.