Beef groups battling over label law

PHOENIX -- Conflicts between U.S. and Canadian and Mexican cattlemen over the new U.S. mandatory country-of-origin meat labeling law appeared to intensify at the recent National Cattlemen's Beef Association and Beef Board annual meetings in Phoen...

PHOENIX -- Conflicts between U.S. and Canadian and Mexican cattlemen over the new U.S. mandatory country-of-origin meat labeling law appeared to intensify at the recent National Cattlemen's Beef Association and Beef Board annual meetings in Phoenix, with the NCBA voting to support use of checkoff dollars to promote U.S. beef, the Beef Board voting to open itself up to pro-labeling groups and Canadian and Mexican beef officials saying trade battles over labeling are likely to continue.

A new labeling law covering meat and certain other agricultural products that was passed in the 2008 farm bill is scheduled to go into effect March 16, although the Obama administration is reviewing the Bush administration's final rule.

Unfair advantage

The NCBA has opposed meat mandatory labeling for years, contending that it would cause trade conflicts and endanger U.S. exports. But the National Farmers Union, the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund-United Stockgrowers of America and the U.S. Cattlemen's Association and some individual members of NCBA contended that the current label that says meat is USDA inspected and approved gives foreign producers an unfair advantage because consumers assume the meat comes from animals born, raised and slaughtered in the United States.

NCBA remains opposed to labeling, but at the meeting Jan. 31, the membership voted to use beef checkoff money to promote U.S. beef in addition to promoting beef consumption regardless of the country of origin. The checkoff was established by a provision in the 1985 farm bill that said a Beef Board could collect $1 per head on the sale of all cattle in the United States and the equivalent on imported beef. The money, about $50 million per year, has been used for product research, for generic beef advertising campaigns such as "Beef: It's What's For Dinner" and for the promotion of certain branded products, but it never has promoted U.S. beef.


NCBA vote

Mandatory country-of-origin labeling and the use of the checkoff money are not technically connected, but the NCBA vote was a powerful signal of changing views within the industry. In the past, NCBA members have rejected proposals to promote U.S. beef on the grounds that such a program could lead to trade retaliation.

Oddly enough, the Beef Board, which would have to move to use some of the money to promote U.S. beef, did not take action on the issue. But the Beef Board voted to seek congressional approval to double the checkoff fee to $2 per head and to allow R-CALF USA and the U.S. Cattlemen's Association to be contractors for spending the checkoff money. NCBA did not go along with those ideas and instead passed a resolution that the checkoff program should be "fair, cost-efficient and coordinated in order to achieve long-range goals." Outgoing Beef Board President Dave Bateman, an Oregon, Ill., producer, says the decisions reflected producers' views, but that the agriculture secretary and Congress would not put the measures into effect if NCBA does not support them.

Canada opposition

Meanwhile, Brad Wildeman, president of the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, said his group had gone along with the Canadian government's decision to put a World Trade Organization complaint against the U.S. regulation on hold after the Bush administration made some changes in the final rule, but that it would urge revival of the complaint if the Obama administration changes the rule. The pressure to segregate Canadian cattle from American cattle during processing is leading the American processors not to buy Canadian cattle or to pay lower prices that result in a $400 million Canadian loss to the Canadian industry.

Wildeman said meat from Canadian animals slaughtered in the United States should be labeled as a product of the U.S. because processing an animal into meat is the same "substantial transformation" that occurs when Detroit turns foreign steel into an automobile that is labeled as American.

Critics of the Canadian opposition to U.S. labeling have noted that Canada allowed food with foreign ingredients to be labeled as product of Canada but, after the scare about melamine in food, changed its law last year to require companies that claim a product is made in Canada to list whether the ingredients are domestic or foreign. A Canadian diplomat says the Canadian views on U.S. labeling and domestic labeling were not in conflict because the Canadian labels are voluntary. A spokeswoman for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency notes, however, that if the claim is made, the government requires that it be accurate.

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