Country-of-Origin Labeling Back in Play

Posted June 22, 2007 at 6:31pm

Sometimes all the lobbying in the world can’t take the place of a single, fortuitous event.

For the quarter-million members of the National Farmers Union, a liberal-leaning group of farmers and ranch families, it was a change of just one subcommittee chairmanship — Connecticut Democrat Rosa DeLauro taking the House Appropriations subcommittee on Agriculture from defeated former Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas) — that could finally deliver a victory on one of the group’s biggest lobbying priorities, country-of-origin labeling.

The issue has been around for years; the requirement that beef, lamb and pork producers label each cut of meat with the country in which the animal was born was part of the Farm Bill of 2002.

But it’s never been put into place.

For that, opponents of the measure, most importantly the powerful American Meat Institute, can

thank Bonilla, the seven-term Texan who was defeated in November.

As chairman of the subcommittee on Agriculture, rural development and Food and Drug Administration, Bonilla simply cut off funding for the measure in two-year intervals; first until 2004, then again until 2006 and finally until September 2008.

DeLauro, who was the ranking member on the subcommittee in the previous Congress, is a fan of the measure.

Indeed, letting consumers know the origins of their steak dinner might seem like a no-brainer, a straightforward piece of information that anyone would want to know.

But in the intensely lobbied world of meat labeling, nothing’s that simple. In fact, the two sides disagree on just about every point in the debate, including whether consumers really do care where their meat is from.

The AMI likes to quote the International Food Information Council, which asked 1,000 consumers whether there is anything not on a food label that they’d like to see. Three quarters said “no,” according to the AMI’s communications director, Dave Ray, while less than 1 percent mentioned country-of-origin labeling.

Adds Bonilla, who stayed in Washington, D.C., and is now a lobbyist at the Normandy Group: “I would challenge anyone to say they have ever had a phone call from a family that said: ‘I really want labels.’”

Don’t wave that figure in front of National Farmers Union President Tom Buis, who notes: “Every survey and every poll taken has shown overwhelmingly, like in the low 80s to high 80s percentage-wise, that consumers prefer to know where their food comes from.”

The two sides also can’t agree on what their fight is about. Proponents of the legislation say it’s about food safety; those opposed to its implementation say it’s merely an old-fashioned protectionist measure aimed at giving all U.S. beef producers a competitive advantage.

“There’s this little thing called tuberculosis in Mexico and mad cow disease in Canada,” notes the National Farmers Union’s Katy Ziegler, “and this little issue of melamine in China,” she adds, referring to the inexpensive additive that was at the center of the recall of 60 million packages of pet food in the United States earlier this year.

But for opponents of the measure, that’s not really what the fight is about.

“The real deal is that it’s an attempt to make it more difficult to import live cattle and hogs,” notes the AMI’s Mark Dopp, the trade group’s general counsel and senior vice president of regulatory affairs.

Much of the U.S. cattle industry uses calves that are born in Mexico, for example, then raised in the U.S., or baby pigs, known as weiner pigs, which are born in Canada and sent to the U.S. to be raised.

Dopp wonders if it is necessary, or even helpful, for a consumer to know where a cow or pig was born if it spends the bulk of its life in the United States.

“We import something like six, seven, eight million weiner pigs at about 10 pounds, which, if you pardon the pun, are littered throughout Minnesota and Iowa in particular,” Dopp said. “They take those 10 pounders to 240 to 250 pounds, and you’re going to tell those farmers they aren’t raising American hogs?”

For now, the issue has returned to the regulatory sphere. Last week, the Department of Agriculture reopened its 60-day comment period for the regulations it plans to issue for beef, lamb and pork country-of-origin labeling requirements. The Agriculture Department last asked for comments shortly after the 2002 Farm Bill was enacted, but since the meat labeling provision never went into effect, it’s re-doing the exercise.

This time, however, there is the experience with at least one commodity, fish labeling, which went into effect in 2005 at the insistence of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens (R). According to a Republican staffer closely involved in the labeling issue, Stevens never made any food safety claims. “He said, ‘It’s marketing, that’s all it is,’” the staffer said.

The National Farmers Union and its main lobbying ally, the Billings, Mont.-based 15,000 member R-CALF USA, believe that if consumers know that the beef they eat comes from cows born outside the U.S., they will be less inclined to buy them. That, in turn, will force the meat processors to buy more of their meat from producers of U.S.-born calves, which is represented by R-CALF USA, an acronym for the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America.

And it will prevent U.S. consumers from being duped by processors who mix foreign cuts with domestic ones.

“Follow the money,” said Buis of the National Farmers Union. “If they’re importing less expensive, lower quality beef and grinding it up, and blending it with U.S.-born cattle, and because it’s processed in the United States, it gets a USDA grade, the consumer assumes it’s a U.S. product.”

But what if the alleged taint of overseas beef was overblown, asked Rep. Bob Goodlatte (Va.), the ranking member of the Agriculture Committee, who believes labeling requirements should be voluntary, not mandatory.

“This is an effort on the part of farmers and ranchers up along the Canadian border to do something that will give them a [competitive] advantage,” he said.

But in the end, it may not make that much difference; in fact, some consumers may search out cuts from overseas.

“American consumers buy goods from all over the world, including many food items,” Goodlatte said. “And some meat producers just might say, ‘We’re guilty. We’re selling fine, grass-fed Argentine Angus beef.”