Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) has risen to the forefront as one of agriculture’s most polarizing topics. Grassroots organizations remain divided on the best approach to product labeling, but it is clear that U.S. beef and pork producers are proud of the product they raise, and they advocate for consumer transparency.

COOL was repealed on the national level in 2015 because U.S. labeling rules at that time were not World Trade Organization (WTO) compliant and Mexico and Canada sued the USDA because of it. If the U.S. had chosen to proceed with COOL despite the three WTO rulings against them, U.S. agriculture products could have been faced with up to one billion dollars in retaliatory tariffs.

It is important to keep in mind that feeder and fat cattle travel somewhat fluidly between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. It is not uncommon for a calf to be born in the U.S., finished in Canada and then brought back to the U.S. for processing. Similar situations happen between the U.S. and Mexico. One question brought up during the WTO rulings was what country gets to claim that beef as their product? Is it the country the calf was born in? The country it was finished out it in? Or, is it considered a product of a certain country once it has been processed?

Sen. Al Olszewski of Kalispell proposed S.B. 206 during Montana’s 66th Legislative Session which aimed to revise the labeling of certain ag products. This bill was worded very similarly to a MT-COOL bill that was passed in the Montana Legislature in 2005. That bill had a sunset clause that made it null and void if national COOL legislation was ever passed, which it was in 2008. When COOL was repealed, it left Montana without a mandate as well.

The 2019 bill required retailers to put up placarding to identify where the product came from. Beef and pork sold within the state of Montana had to be labeled, according to S.B. 206, but the bill did not require Montana produced beef and pork to be labeled if it ever left the state.

The bill was supported by the Montana Farmers Union (MFU), Montana Cattlemen’s Association and the Northern Plains Resource Council. Proponents applauded this bill for making Montana a leader in COOL by proposing a labeling model that potentially could be followed on the national level. Supporters also took note of the clause in this bill that defined what could be marketed as meat, making it so cell-cultured meat, or “fake meat,” could not be labeled as the real deal. MFU members testified that cell-cultured meat could become a viable industry in the future and S.B. 206 was ahead of the curve, addressing how to label it now.

On the other side, the Montana Farm Bureau Federation (MFBF) and the Montana Stockgrowers Association (MSGA) were in opposition of S.B. 206. Both organizations support COOL, but they feel it is an issue that needs to be addressed on the national level. The MFBF and the MSGA agree that S.B. 206 had the best of intentions in mind, but they are not convinced the legislations provided a viable, long-term labeling solution.

“We really got a mixed message from S.B. 206. Were we really encouraging a country of origin labeling or were we encouraging people to buy more local products,” Chelcie Cargill of the MFBF stated.

Another issue that both organizations had with the bill is the fact that so much responsibility was placed on the retailers of Montana, often small family owned operations. Grocers are the last link in the meat chain and it seemed unfair to make them totally responsible for its labeling.

“If you are going to place that much responsibility on the retailers, it is important to involve them in writing the legislation to make sure that it works. They were not included in any of the discussions prior to this bill being dropped,” explained Jay Bodnar, executive vice president for MSGA.

Neither S.B. 206 or its sister bill, H.B. 594 made it out of committee this year. Sen. Olszewski then sponsored S.J. 16 as a joint resolution which explained Montana’s support for COOL at the national level and asked our congressional delegation to jumpstart conversations. This bill did pass all the way through.

Trade talks are a priority for this administration and now may be as good a time as any to reinitiate conversations about COOL and the complexities involved. U.S. mandated COOL is about more than advocating for clear, concise product labeling – it is also about finding a WTO compliant solution that can be universally supported by producers and is a win-win for all aspects of agriculture.