USDA beef decision good for Montana ranchers, schools, MFU says

USDA beef decision good for Montana ranchers, schools, MFU says

TOM LUTEY Billings Gazette

Nov 13, 2023

It was about the best news a small meat processor could hope for. On Thursday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that from now on the Agricultural Marketing Service would only be purchasing meat sourced to American farms and ranches.

AMS buys about $800 million worth of meat a year, including 87 million pounds of hamburger. But the blending of U.S. cattle with animals from Mexico, Canada and beyond at large meatpacking plants made an all-U.S. purchase difficult if not impossible. Not to mention that U.S. country of origin labeling rules doesn’t apply to beef and pork.

“It’s just a way of driving the market down and playing cowboys from Brazil against cowboys from Montana,” said Walt Schweitzer, a rancher and director of Montana Farmers Union. “It just irritates the crap out of me when they say, ‘Well, we need to bring in this foreign beef because we need to mix in lean beef.’ If they just paid us, we would sell them lean beef.”

The most reliable supply for the U.S. sourced beef is small meat processors, of which Montana has a growing number. Because the cattle are local, there’s no foreign beef in the mix and no political pushback.

Montana processed more than 37,000 head in 2022, more than double what was butchered in the state 10 years earlier. Much of that growth is attributed to the federal government investments in local meat processing since the COVID-19 pandemic.

A sickened workforce at large packing plants, coupled with panic buying by consumers resulted in meat shortages at supermarkets.

The federal government responded by investing billions to expand local meat processing, including $20 million invested in Montana. MFU now operates a meat processing facility in Havre and will take control of another one in the Flathead in January.