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Feedlot owners sue over labeling law
Cattle turn to the watering trough at the Easterday Ranches Inc. feedlot in Pasco, Wash. Easterday Ranches has filed suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, seeking a rewrite of a law that requires beef to be labeled by its country of origin.

PASCO, Wash. - Cody Easterday estimates that some 25 percent of the cattle at his 30,000-head feedlot come from Canada, with maybe a few cattle from Mexico in the pens.

But weeks after the government began requiring producers to label beef with the country the animals came from, Easterday estimates he's already getting lower prices for that foreign beef - as much as $30 per head.

It's just one reason he's suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to rewrite the beef labeling provision in what could be one of several attempts to overturn a law long sought by consumer and farm groups.

"It's a flawed law that's going to cost the industry hundreds of millions of dollars," Easterday said.

The new law, required by the 2008 Farm Bill, went into effect Sept. 30. It requires grocery stores to identify the "country of origin" for meat, produce and certain nuts. Retailers have six months to fully comply before the USDA will begin enforcement.

Meatpackers and retailers have long opposed the rules, saying they would be expensive and burdensome.

In the lawsuit filed last month in U.S. District Court, Easterday Ranches Inc. contends that labeling will increase record keeping and operating costs and deter meat packers from buying Canadian-born cattle from Easterday's feedlot.

The Agriculture Department declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

Beef industry insiders have said the law could be troublesome in the Northwest, where so many Canadian cattle are shipped across the border to U.S. feedlots and slaughterhouses.

There are just two commercial beef packers in the Northwest, both in Washington - AB Foods in Toppenish and Tyson Foods Inc. in Wallula - and as much as 30 percent to 40 percent of their cattle come from Canada.

Cattlemen in the Southwest might buy cattle from Mexico, but the issue of cross-border cattle shipments doesn't strike home in the Midwest or Northeast, Easterday said.

"They move back and forth across the border all the time," he said of the U.S.-Canada cattle industry. "Any time there's a wrench in that, we jeopardize the livelihood of the cattle industry on both sides. They need us and we need them."

Easterday also said the program offers no additional safeguards that beef products are any safer, though consumers may believe it does. Rather, it just allows retailers to discount non-U.S. products, which are just as high in quality, he said.

"Every single one of them is subject to the same food safety laws and the same USDA inspection," Easterday said. "It's not a safety program. This is a marketing program only."

Consumers have a host of issues they consider when buying products, including origin of ingredients and environmental sustainability, said Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America. The group has long supported labeling, but not as a food safety program

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