Horns come out over food-labeling dispute

2013-07-11T00:00:00Z 2013-07-11T17:05:07Z Horns come out over food-labeling disputeBy TOM LUTEY tlutey@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

The federal government wants to give consumers more information about where their meat comes from, but the U.S. meat industry is crying bull.

Livestock groups and meatpackers are suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture over County of Origin Labeling, or COOL rules, arguing that “consumer curiosity” isn’t reason enough to disclose where an animal was born, raised and slaughtered. Forcing the industry to do so is a violation of free speech, they say.

“Mere consumer curiosity is not a substantial government interest and it’s easy to see why,” said Catherine Stetson, attorney for the American Meat Institute. “There’s no end point.”

Meat sold in the United States meets the same health and safety requirements no matter where it’s from, the plaintiffs argue. It’s also graded for quality. Pointing out where it came from merely creates differences in the consumer’s mind that don’t exist.

“In short, beef is beef, whether the steer or heifer was born in Montana, Manitoba or Mazatlan,” according to the complaint. “The same goes for hogs, chickens and other livestock.”

A growing number of consumers disagree, though the public’s decisions on food are complicated.

“We see more and more consumers wanting to know more about their food and it doesn’t always translate into the inclination to purchase higher-priced food, but that’s changing, too,” said Annie Conley of the Western Sustainability Exchange. “The more information they have, the happier they are.”

WSE is a Livingston-based organization that connects consumers and restaurants with farms and ranches that protect the land and shy away from things like pesticides, hormones and antibiotics. Its partners include some 50 farms and ranches and 20 Montana restaurants, plus some large institutional accounts, like the University of Montana in Missoula.

The information explosion during the 20 years WSE has existed has given consumers easy answers to their questions about food. And with so many sources of information available online, consumers have grown a lot more cynical about the information provided by food authorities in government or the food industry, Conley said. The trend among consumers is for more information, not less.

Nonetheless, price remains the biggest driver of what most consumers buy, Conley said. When the recession hit and cash-strapped consumers began dining out less or seeking the cheaper options, some restaurants that previously sourced their steaks all the way back to the ranch went searching for cheaper options.

Probably the consumers who most want to know where their food comes from are those in their 20s and 30s. They’re also the consumers who have tighter budgets, said Bill Honaker, owner of Walkers American Grill in Billings.

For 20 years, Walkers has been telling customers where their food was raised. Honaker sources everything from steaks to tomatoes all the way back to the farm from which it came. Sometimes it’s easy, but Montana’s short growing season means Honaker searches far for ingredients during the long winter when the only thing growing on Montana stalks is hoarfrost.

“We’re fortunate here. We use Yellowstone Grassfed Beef for some of our stuff, and we drive right by it,” Honaker said. “We’ve been sourcing food for 20 years and really we did it because it was the right thing to do. It was a better product and now it’s becoming a business.”

Local food isn’t always the better product. And it’s sure to disappoint if it’s poorly prepared, Honaker said. There are economic reasons for knowing where your food comes from, especially when it’s raised locally because the money in the sale sticks around.

The plaintiffs suing USDA this week argued that singling out meat based on where it originated causes unwarranted discrimination. The steak from Mazatlan might not be any different from a Montana steak in the same refrigerator case at the local grocery. If a COOL label causes the Mazatlan steak not to sell or drives down its price, the plaintiffs argued, that’s wrong.

Bill Bullard disagrees. If a consumer chooses a Mexican steak over an American one, that’s competition, said Bullard, CEO of the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America.

Billings-based R-CALF USA has argued for years that consumers are willing to pay more for American beef than they are for beef from Canada or Mexico. By not disclosing where the meat originated, the meat industry is selling foreign meat under the cloak of America’s good beef reputation, R-CALF argues.

When the USDA unveiled its new COOL rules in May, giving the meat industry six months to switch to more detailed labels, R-CALF wanted more information than what the new labels offered, not less. The meat industry has used labels to promote certain types of beef over others for years, Bullard said. Its own marketing suggests not all cattle are the same.

“The packers are a bit hypocritical about that because their marketing efforts claim that meat from black-hided animals is superior,” Bullard said. “That’s what the certified Angus beef program is.”

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