Meat industry prevails on Congress to roll back origin labeling rule

Farm Forum

WASHINGTON — The language is tucked into a paragraph on page 13 of Division A of the 1,600-page Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015, better known as the federal budget.

It requires the secretary of agriculture to change a United States meat labeling rule to comply with a World Trade Organization (WTO) decision that brands the rule unfair. The paragraph would eliminate the need for meat producers, packers and distributors to show where the animals used in their products are born, raised and slaughtered.

The paragraph’s inclusion in the budget is a testament to the lobbying power of the biggest players in the American meat industry, including Minnesota-based Cargill Inc. and Hormel Foods Corp. Both companies have battled in the courts and Congress against country-of-origin labeling, which both call onerous and ineffective.

Hormel spokesman Rick Williamson said the company “supports the views held by industry organizations such as the American Meat Institute, National Pork Producers Council and the North American Meat Association that the rule will cause consumer confusion, raise food prices, be costly to implement and serve no public health or food safety benefit.”

The WTO says the U.S. country-of-origin labeling rule — known as COOL — violates international free trade by requiring extensive record-keeping that discourages U.S. meat processors from buying foreign products. The U.S. will appeal the decision.

But Canada and Mexico, which filed the charges that led to the WTO decision, have already threatened tariffs on hundreds of U.S. products if the rules don’t change. Some Minnesota livestock farmers also support the law.

“The country-of-origin labeling piece was put into law for the benefit of family farmers so consumers could know where their food comes from and who they want to support,” said Paul Sobocinski, who raises pigs and cattle in southwestern Minnesota. “What we’re seeing is the American Meat Institute slip behind the door and put their will forward to undermine the rules.

“Too often corporate power is rising above people, and this is an example.”

As he worked on his farm recently, Sobocinski, 64, said Americans want and deserve country-of-origin labeling. If that is going to change, he added, the public needs more of a say than it had in the process that got an order to dilute food labeling buried in a budget bill.

“When the people’s business is being done, the people have a right to know up front so they can communicate with their representatives,” he said.

Cargill spokesman Mike Martin said the language in the budget bill does not force a resolution.

“It does require USDA [the U.S. Department of Agriculture] to submit options for congressional consideration,” Martin said. “We also believe Congress must address this in its next session to bring the U.S. into compliance with international trade laws.”

Minnesota’s U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, both Democrats, think the WTO appeals process should play out before the U.S. does anything to dilute its labeling requirements. In e-mail statements to the Star Tribune, each stressed the importance of letting consumers know where the food they eat comes from.

Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota said the meat industry was trying to “legislate through allocation” and “trying to put heat on [Secretary of Agriculture Tom] Vilsack to get him to do something.” But Peterson, ranking minority member of the House Agriculture Committee, said Vilsack may lack the power to dilute the rules.

“We don’t know what will satisfy the WTO,” Peterson said in an interview. “When we do know, I don’t know if we can legislatively get it done.”

Vilsack tried to push the issue back into the notoriously gridlocked House and Senate, telling a recent Farm Journal Forum that his department is “stuck.”

“We need congressional action,” he said.

For now, however, the budget bill requires that Vilsack change the COOL rule to comply with the WTO by May 1.

The political victory for the meat industry contrasts with its struggles to stop country-of-origin labeling in federal court. The American Meat Institute, which includes Cargill and Hormel, leads a coalition of meat producers, packers and distributors that sued the Agriculture Department. The coalition argued that keeping country of origin records was onerous and ineffective, but it also claimed COOL violated meat producers’, packers’ and distributors’ free speech. The D.C. Court of Appeals rejected that argument. The meat coalition is still deciding if it will appeal to the Supreme Court.

As for its success in getting a paragraph in the budget that could dilute meat labeling rules, Meat Institute spokesman Eric Mittenthal said, “At this point it is just report language, not statutory. But we agree with Secretary Vilsack that a statutory fix is needed. … The statutory fix is whatever meets our WTO obligations and satisfies the Canadians and Mexicans who have brought the complaint. It’s pretty clear the born, raised and slaughtered label doesn’t meet those obligations.”

Minnesota Farmers Union President Doug Peterson called such talk a “last-ditch effort by meatpackers to overturn COOL.” Tucking food labeling changes into a federal budget bill “doesn’t pass the smell test,” Peterson added.

He said there is some talk in Washington about developing standard food labeling rules that could be universally applied and cut down on record-keeping. But Peterson and his membership want country of origin on all labels.

“There are not the same standards of safety in foreign countries as the U.S.,” Peterson said. “I don’t really buy food made in China.”

Livestock farmers like Andrew Herdegen of Hutchinson say they will live with consumers’ decisions to buy from any country, so long as consumers get to choose.

“At the end of the day,” Herdegen said, “I am a United States of America beef producer. I want the label to say ‘USA,’ not ‘product of North America.'”