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Billings Livestock

Cattle move through the sale ring at Billings Livestock Commission Co., 2443 N. Frontage Road, in Lockwood in December 2015 shortly after the U.S. rescinded its Country of Origin Labeling rule to avoid internationally imposed tariffs.

The Montana Cattlemen’s Association hosted a lively discussion on Montana Country of Origin Labeling (MT-COOL) at the annual meeting Dec. 8 in Lewistown.

Cattlemen’s Vice President Wally Congdon moderated the panel and explained the Montana Cattlemen’s Association shall advocate the passage of MT-COOL. He added MT-COOL was first adopted in 2005, but that bill had a sunset clause for when a National COOL was adopted, which happened in 2008. However, Congress rescinded COOL in 2015, leaving Montana without a labeling law.

Consumers and cattle producers appear to overwhelmingly support COOL, so the Montana Cattlemen’s Association, along with the Montana Farmers Union and the Northern Plains Resource Council, shall advocate its restoration.

Wally Congdon explained the current draft of MT-COOL is closely modeled after the 2005 law. The main addition is a clause defining what can be marketed as meat, beef, pork, lamb and poultry to prevent “fake meat” from using those terms.

Central Montana Resource Council spokesperson Gilles Stockton explained his organization was part of the original coalition advocating for MT-COOL in 2005 and will also be advocating for MT-COOL in this coming legislative session.

Montana Farmers Union’s Chris Christiaens explained how both the National Farmers Union and the MFU has long supported COOL both at the Montana and national level. Montana Farmers Union was part of the supporting coalition in 2005 and is anxious to lend their influence for the restoration of MT-COOL.

As pointed out at the discussion, all imported products and foods, except for beef and pork, are required to have a country of origin label. This makes no sense.

The third panel member, Barnett Sporkin-Morrison, representing the Food and Ag Development Center, was skeptical about MT-COOL being able to perform as livestock producers would believe. He based his argument on the following three main points: 1. lack of a National Livestock Identification System, 2. the conviction that beef producers should not oppose other aspects of agriculture such as pulse growers, and 3. market research showing consumers may be in favor of labeling but will not pay more for U.S.-produced beef. His presentation set off a very lively debate from the packed crowd and panel members.

During the discussion, it was pointed out one should not confuse animal identification for marketing purposes with identification for veterinary surveillance. It is true some consumers would like information about the farm or ranch of origin of their beef purchase. However, meeting that preference should be a marketing option by producers engaged in a “branded beef program.” There is no reason for the U.S. government to require all producers provide farm of origin information for no compensation. It was further noted COOL was working very well without NAIS until it was rescinded in 2015. It was simply a matter of tracking the 20 percent of beef being imported rather than the 80 percent domestically produced.

Apparently, pulse growers are very concerned about the wording of policies meant to define meat and meat-like substitutes derived from vegetable proteins. The pulse growers were vocal at the Montana Farmers Union annual meeting, insisting the Montana Farmers Union policy was not discriminatory to pulse growers. Someone in the audience pointed out that cattle producers are not telling anyone to not eat foods derived from beans, but they should not be allowed to call it meat or beef.

A country of origin label was required starting in 2011, but stopped in 2015. In that short time, it looked as though COOL was having a positive influence on the market. Cattle prices certainly crashed after COOL was rescinded in 2015.

Wally Congdon pointed out that a small market preference study in Nebraska showed consumer preference went up for beef originating in the U.S., Canada and Australia, while beef from Central and South America went down. There was also a discussion about why the meat packers and their captive organizations — the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Pork Producers Council — were so opposed to COOL. They fought it from its first inception in 2002 until they were finally successful in killing COOL in 2015. Someone from the audience quipped: “Follow the money.”

Sen. Al Olszewski of Kalispell has requested the Legislative Services Division review the MT-COOL draft. It is expected that both Republican and Democrat Legislators will sponsor the bill. Montana Cattlemen’s Association, Montana Farmers Union, and Northern Plains all encourage their members, concerned producers, and beef consumers to contact their local legislator and insist he or she vote for this much-needed and commonsense bill.

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Gilles Stockton, of Grass Range, is a member of the Central Montana Resource Council.