Mandatory country of origin food labeling works for ranchers, consumers

By Chad Franke, president, Rocky Mountail Farmers Union

I am grateful to serve as president for the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, whose mission of education includes assuring consumers can make fair choices on where their food products are grown or raised. In this role, I represent over 15,000 family farmers and ranchers from Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. Our member-led policy makes it exceptionally clear that we support clear and transparent labeling within our food supply. When shopping for their families, consumers expect an easy and accurate way to determine where their food comes from. 

We have long advocated for policies to require this, and the 2002 Farm Bill adopted by Congress and signed by the President enacted mandatory country of origin labeling (MCOOL) for food products. This legislative action created a requirement for fruits, vegetables, honey, lamb and other food products to bear a label that gives the consumer important information on where that product originated. Producers and consumers faced a huge setback in 2015 when global meat interests influenced Congress to hinder consumer transparency by removing beef and pork labeling requirements. At the time of this vote, I was in Washington D.C., as an RMFU member lobbying to prevent this removal of labeling requirements for beef and pork. Interestingly only pork and beef requirements were removed, calling into question the motivation for the World Trade Organization’s actions at the time. How does it make any sense that all of our other food products require clear labeling and not these two important protein staples?

Livestock producers across the West depend on a fair price for their animals but this issue has led to the large meatpackers extracting record profits while the rest of the industry, meaning those of us who invest the time and energy in actually raising the animals, earning less and less of the food dollar every year. According to USDA, since MCOOL requirements were removed in 2015, annual averages for what meat packers earn per pound of choice beef has almost tripled while the amount that farmers and ranchers receive for each food dollar of choice beef has fallen by almost 13 percent.

From my experience raising pigs and selling both direct to consumer and through Whole Foods, it was extremely obvious that not only do consumers want to know where their food comes from, they are willing to pay more for locally grown meat not only because they know who raised their food, but because they know when family farmers and rancher thrive, their communities thrive as well. Keeping money in rural communities is more important than adding to multinational company’s bottom lines. 

In addition to my personal experience, consumer studies overwhelmingly prove that people want to know what is in their food and where it comes from, yet we see the big meatpackers make excuses why they can’t provide what their customers want in order to ease their control of the market. Sadly, as it currently stands, consumers have no way to actually know where the products they buy in the stores originate because of loopholes that exist that allow for a ‘Product of USA’ label to be affixed to a foreign product when it has simply been repackaged or processed domestically. We have been working hard to improve these standards, but the ultimate fix is to reinstate clear country of origin labeling requirements as a federal action. 
As a Wyoming resident, and also speaking for members in Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, I am grateful to have champions like Reps. Harriet Hageman, R-Wyo., and Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., who are leading the fight by recently introducing the Country of Origin Labeling Enforcement Act of 2023. This would not only reinstate country of origin labeling but would create real enforcement measures to ensure consumers are not being misled as they make their purchasing decisions. 

The ranchers who are the fabric of our local economies deserve a fair shake. They are stewarding our working lands and are the backbone of these amazing places that we call home. Let’s support these local families who work — day in and day out — to feed each and every one of us, and the communities that rely on them. Thank you again to Reps. Hageman and Boebert who are working to pass strong legislation to ensure consumers know where their food originates. We ask the other representatives of Colorado and New Mexico to join in supporting this bill to bring some fairness back to the cattle and pork markets.

Franke was raised on a fifth generation farm/ranch in eastern Colorado. He also raised Berkshire pigs farrow to finish selling direct to consumers and through Whole Foods, and owned a small feed mill. Rocky Mountain Farmers Union is a general farm organization whose 15,000 member families live in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming.

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