As the date for implementing mandatory country of origin labeling for meat approaches, tension is mounting between domestic cattle producers who support the requirement and the meatpackers who oppose it.
Last week, the American Meat Institute — the trade association representing packers — sent a letter to the Ranchers-Cattleman Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America, advising the group as to what documentation its members would require of producers in order to comply with the law that goes into effect Sept. 30, 2008. The letter stated that packers should require proof — in the form of affidavits and declarations — of where livestock was born, raised and purchased. Packers should also demand access to suppliers' records and hold producers liable for inaccurate information.
R-CALF shot back with a press release stating it would file formal complaints with the Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration against "any meatpacker that follows AMI's recommended demands that would deceive, mislead, coerce and threaten U.S. cattle producers."
R-CALF CEO Bill Bullard described AMI's recommendations as a tactic to delay country-of-origin labeling by intimidating producers and making the process appear more burdensome than it needs to be. "This is déjà vu," he said. "The meatpackers deployed this same strategy in 2003 when they thought COOL would be implemented in September 2004. The packers are pre-empting the federal agency charged with determining how the law is to be implemented."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is currently soliciting comments on how labeling should be carried out for beef, lamb, pork, peanuts and some perishable produce. Bullard argues that it is not necessary for producers to trace back the origins of every animal because all animals imported into the U.S. are already branded with their country of origin, and packers could use that information to label meats.
While AMI makes no secret that it opposes COOL as a costly, burdensome law, senior vice president of public affairs Janet Riley says the recent recommendations were not about threatening producers. "We need to assist our members in complying with the law," she said. "They need to tell their suppliers what they're going to expect come 2008 because our members are the ones that are going to face fines."
AMI General Counsel Mark Dopp says Bullard's scenario for labeling would violate fair trade laws and still wouldn't tell packers where an animal was raised or solve the logistical nightmare of segregating meat in the plant according to where animals were born, raised and slaughtered. The association estimates that for products to bear the country label, consumers will have to pay 15 to 30 cents more per pound for meat.
Bullard says that consumers have a right to make independent purchasing decisions about where they want their food produced.
Riley, however, says there's no evidence that consumers want that right. "If consumers really want this the market will respond, but there's no evidence that this is what consumers look at," she said.