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Country of Origin Labeling divides some organizations

By Wendy Reuer

FARGO, N.D. — While most farmers and ranchers celebrated when the U.S. House passed a farm bill Wednesday, some regional beef producers who hoped to exclude a provision that demands “Product of the U.S.A.” labels on American meat weren’t pleased.

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Country of Origin Labeling, or COOL, requires that U.S. beef be labeled as “Product of the U.S.A.” in stores so consumers know where their meat was born, raised and/or slaughtered.

Supporters of COOL say consumers have a right to know where their meat comes from, but opponents, including U.S. meatpackers, say the law imposes unnecessary costs on the industry and violates free trade. Meat companies say costs are driven up by the extra work to segregate beef by origin.

The COOL provision, which was first implemented in 2008 and remains in the current farm bill approved Wednesday requires meat to be labeled with where animals are born, grown and processed.

COOL is already being challenged in the World Trade Organization following complaints by Canada and Mexico. The two countries claim the system unfairly markets their product and that a “Product of North America” label should be used instead.

Kenny Graner, a Menoken, N.D., beef producer and president of the Independent Beef Association of North Dakota, supports “Product of the U.S.A.” labels. He said changing the labels away from being U.S.A.-specific would hurt an already declining beef industry in North Dakota.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says cattle numbers dropped by 2 percent in 2013 from 2012.

“It secures our space on the meat shelf,” Graner said of the U.S. labels. “We’re proud of the product that we raise, and we shouldn’t disguise it.”

As U.S. cattle numbers fall, import numbers increase to supply the demand. That means more money to outside countries and less money going to U.S. producers, Graner said.

“We have a very straight-forward COOL law,” he said. “It’s marketing 101. You distinguish your product.”

The U.S. also has the highest standards for meat production in the world and allowing meat to be comingled with foreign products not regulated to the same standards could dilute the quality, Graner said.

The North Dakota Stockmen’s Association takes the opposite view.

Like the National Stockmen’s Association, which lobbied against the farm bill because it wanted changes in COOL, the state association has spoken against COOL.

Jason Zahn, a Towner, N.D., beef producer and president of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, said COOL drives up the cost of production, which lowers the amount of money packers and feeders will pay him for his feeder calves.

“Research has shown that while consumers say they want U.S.-origin beef, they still make their purchasing decisions based on cost,” Zahn said.

“If our beef costs more because of the implementation of a costly program like COOL, consumers will likely turn to cheaper, non-U.S. beef or another protein source as an alternative. That will affect my bottom line.”

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