The new U.S. Congress may revisit mandatory country-of-origin labelling for pork and beef, says a representative of the National Farmers Union in the United States.
However, the political hurdles of passing such legislation are high. It’s more likely the U.S. government will strengthen its Product of USA label for pork and beef, which could affect Canada’s livestock sector.
That political reality is why American farm groups such as the NFU are focusing on the Product of USA label.
“In some ways, it’s kind of like this fallback,” said Matt Perdue, government relations director with the North Dakota Farmers Union.
“The Product of USA label, if we get the integrity and transparency… that it would create an opportunity for U.S. producers to earn a premium here in the U.S.”
The current rules around the voluntary Product of USA label for beef and pork are puzzling for some.
Meat companies can put a Product of the USA label on a package of beef, even if the animal was born and raised in another country.
“That animal could be fed, born and actually even slaughtered in Canada. As long as it … is repackaged in the United States, it (could) be labelled as Product of the USA,” Perdue said from Jamestown, N.D.
“A single processing step in the United States can earn that product the voluntary Product of USA label.”
The NFU, the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association and others want to clarify the label so that it applies only to livestock born, raised and processed in the U.S.
If Congress or the U.S. Department of Agriculture made such a change, it could create a two-tiered market in the U.S. — one for beef and pork with the Product of USA label and another for meat from livestock born, raised or slaughtered in other countries.
In Canada’s case, American feedlot operators, hog barns and packing plants might be reluctant to buy livestock from Canada.
“Your animal from Canada … the meat from that animal could not be labelled Product of USA,” Perdue said.
“It could not capture that price premium.”
In 2019, the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association petitioned the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service to revise the label through changes to regulations. Earlier this year, the FSIS said it may alter the label so it only applies to “meat products derived from livestock that were slaughtered and processed in the U.S.,” DTN reported.
That’s not good enough for the NFU, the Cattlemen’s Association and some senators.
Last year, two senators from South Dakota, Mike Rounds and John Thune, brought forward the Beef Integrity Act. It proposes the Product of the USA label be exclusively used for beef from animals born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S.
The bill is still grinding its way through Congress.
The National Farmers Union supports the Beef Integrity Act and the efforts to strengthen the Product of USA label.
The Western Producer contacted the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the largest beef industry group in the U.S., for comment on the proposed changes to Product of USA labels, but it did not respond by press time.
Perdue said the Beef Integrity Act or changes to the FSIS labelling rules could gain momentum when the new congress and President-elect Joe Biden take office.
“When we look to a new administration… I would hope they pick that up,” he said. “That pressure on USDA and Congress, to shore up the integrity of that label, is going to be the key focus moving forward.”
Walter Schweitzer, president of the Montana Farmers Union, used strong words to describe the Product of USA labelling standards.
“It’s really criminal what they’re allowing right now,” he said, noting ground beef can be shipped from Brazil to the U.S. in a box. If that meat is “transferred from a box into a package” in America, it still qualifies for the Product of USA label.
“So even the sophisticated consumers, like Wendy’s restaurants… think they are selling Product of the USA. When in reality they are selling beef and pork from God knows where.”
The NFU’s first choice would be for Congress to reinstate mandatory country-of-origin labelling for beef and pork.
It was in effect in the U.S. from 2009 to 2015.
Congress repealed the legislation in 2015, following a World Trade Organization challenge from Canada and Mexico. The WTO ruled multiple times in favour of Canada and Mexico, saying COOL discriminates against Canadian cattle and hogs.
A number of U.S. farm groups and politicians are still working to reinstate it.
A spokesperson for a Canadian commodity group said COOL never really “went away” in the U.S. because it’s been a simmering issue for years.
However, legislation to reinstate COOL is unlikely because powerful groups oppose the concept. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Pork Producers Council do not support COOL.
Schweitzer, who raises Black Angus cattle and produces hay on his farm near Judith Basin, Montana, said powerful senators also oppose COOL.
“Mitch McConnell still controls the Senate agenda. And he won’t allow COOL,” said Schweitzer. “He won his election because he got a lot of money from the lobbying groups that represent the packers…. He’s not going to do something against them.”
Revising the Product of USA standard represents the next best option for American livestock producers who want some form of country of origin labelling.