COORS bill causes rift among Colorado beef producers and cattle industry groups
A debate that is neither simple nor reticent is, once again, raging between members of different camps within the cattle industry with the discussion centered in Colorado. As the arguments about Country of Origin Labeling in beef come before the Colorado House Agriculture committee in response to HB18-1043, some experts worry the ensuing debate stands to damage the public’s perception of the beef industry.
Republican Rep. Kimmi Lewis, a cattlewoman from southeastern Colorado, has proposed HB18-1043, the Beef Country of Origin Recognition System, or COORS bill. The bill would amend the Colorado Food and Drug Act to require Colorado retailers to indicate, through a placard on the meat case, the country of origin of beef sold.
R-CALF, USA has pledged support of the proposed law in a statement published on social media supporting the right of consumers to choose “USA beef over beef from Argentina, Uruguay, or Mexico” and touting that the bill will protect food safety.
Douglas Cody Jolly, a Hugo, Colo., cattleman and president of the Colorado Independent Cattlegrowers’ Association, an affiliate of R-CALF, said there shouldn’t be “a beef about labeling beef”.
“We, of course, want our product differentiated in the marketplace,” he said. “But this is about our consumers, too. Here in the U.S., we have some of the most stringent rules and regulations on our industry.”
Though Jolly admits the regulations imposed upon the industry can pose challenges to producers, he said it’s those regulations that allow the U.S. to offer consumers a safe and wholesome product. Allowing American beef producers to label the products they’re proud of, he said, is good for the industry and consumers.
Jolly points out that the COORS bill is a placard requirement and that not all beef itself would be labeled. However, it is unknown exactly how retailers would require proof of the country of origin back through the chain of production without a nationwide system in place.
Lewis said in an earlier news release, the loss of the former national COOL labeling program opened the doors for multinational meat packers “to bring in cheap beef from foreign countries, process it or cut it up and then label it a product of the USA.”
Consumers, Jolly said, want to know where their food comes from and beef remains one of the few foods in the refrigerated sections without country of origin labeling.
“They want to know where their food comes from,” he said. “Especially as we import from all these different countries, they may not be held to the same standards as us. They may even be using products that are banned in our country.”
Jolly said there is an affidavit available through some livestock markets that producers can sign to assert that the animals listed on a bill of sale are of U.S.A. origin, which could be one avenue through which U.S. cattle could be identified without a current verification program to do so. Ultimately, the bill dictates that the Colorado Department of Health and Environment would be required to determine the parameters of and put a verification program in place.
Opponents of the bill maintain that the labeling, among other problems, will cause consumers to question the safety of the beef supply.
“The claim here is that it’s a food safety issue,” said Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. “I find it pretty reprehensible that somebody would claim that there is a safety issue in the beef supply chain that’s been unfounded, unverified and also further stipulate that a label will fix that.”
Logic, Fankhauser said, dictates that retailers know that foreign beef is as safe as American beef and wouldn’t jeopardize public health and trust if it weren’t. Given previous conversations Fankhauser has had with urban legislators, he said the opportunity to correct misinformation and supply information straight from producers across the state at the upcoming hearing is an opportune one.
“That’s the type of perception this is driving,” he said. “Now we have activists and extremists and anti-agricultural groups working hand in hand to support this legislation. They know it’s harmful to the industry and anything that’s harmful to the industry is good for their cause.”
Fankhauser pointed out that the root of the discussion and the motivation behind the bill all stems from good intentions and pride in producers’ product, which he calls appropriate and noble, but it has allowed the polarization to become so great that extremist groups are able to draw uncertainty about the product with consumers which hurts the industry.
Among the other major issues causing cattlemen to oppose the bill is the lack of legality on the federal level, and that it violates the recognition of interstate commerce for beef in addition to unduly burdening producers from other states shipping cattle to Colorado. That being said, Fankhauser said that Wyoming, South Dakota and North Dakota have similar laws. South Dakota, he said, has had a law on the books since the 1970s mandating the labeling of all imported beef.
“Not one label has been applied,” he said. “Not one regulatory enforcement action has ever been put in place.”
The reasoning behind the lack of enforcement, Fankhauser said, is that the state recognizes the lack of legality of the law and that executing any enforcement action would open the state to liability against claims from producers.
Fankhauser maintains that the discussion about beef labeling belongs at a national level and that labeling programs have value when instituted voluntarily to add value to the product.
To trace the COORS program backwards from a distributor, like Safeway, for example that has a fabrication facility in Denver that accepts meat from Colorado processors, changes would begin in the meat case and ripple through the production cycle.
“At the fabrication facility, they’re going to have to ask everyone upstream that every bit of boxed beef that comes to the door is labeled,” he said.
If the meat comes from Cargill, here in Colorado, he said, they will have to put into place segregated groups based on identifying the ones born, raised and processed in the U.S. Cargill, in turn, will turn to its feedyards and only accept those cattle on certain days, complicating the feedyards’ ability to ship as cattle become ready and when prices are most favorable. The cattle would also have to be shipped with some sort of verification to their origin. Feedyards will then have to require order buyers to gather verification of origin when cattle are purchased to feed. Ultimately, he said, only cattle that are source verified will be purchased and interstate commerce will be damaged.
The national COOL program was repealed in December of 2015, after the labeling was found to violate some trade standards in place with Canada and Mexico through the World Trade Organization. The program had to either be made compliant, repealed or the risk of lawsuits and trade sanctions would increase non-tariff and tariff barriers put in place, Fankhauser said.
Producers representing the beef industry and membership of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, Colorado Farm Bureau and other agricultural groups will present their testimony to the committee in Denver on Monday, Jan. 29.
Dallas Vaughn, a Kit Carson County cattleman and Colorado Farm Bureau member will be one of the voices heard. Vaughn sent a message rallying opposition to the bill over social media that has drawn criticism from R-CALF.
Vaughn’s main concerns with the proposed legislation is that the bill would add only additional cost to beef without added value or safety, ultimately driving beef prices up and demand down. This, paired with the need to import beef to meet demand, Vaughn said necessitates the importation of beef at various points of production.
“We import animals from Mexico and Canada,” he said. “They come here and eat our wheat pastures, they eat our corn in our feedlots. Other than being born across the border, they’re essentially American cattle that help drive our economy. They’re fed to our standards and harvested in our facilities and processed to our standards.”
Under some current contractual agreements between feeders and packers, feeders must adhere to withdrawal periods, not feed mammalian derived protein, beta agonists and must disclose cattle of non-U.S. origins.
“This type of ill-conceived rhetoric harms the industry in the eyes of the public and its consumers to some degree, irreparably,” Fankhauser said. ❖