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U.S. cattle groups call for clear labels

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Different cattle groups are pushing for better labeling for U.S. beef products — whether that’s voluntary or mandatory.

Eric Nelson says he believes consumers would pay a premium for a beef product they knew was bred, born, raised and processed in the U.S.

Nelson, who farms and feeds cattle in northwest Iowa, serves as Region 7 director for R-CALF USA. He says restoring the Mandatory Country of Origin Label (MCOOL) will assure consumers they are eating U.S. beef.

MCOOL was repealed in 2015, the result of a complaint to the World Trade Organization from Canada and Mexico. Among other items, the WTO said the label gave preferential treatment to U.S. products.

Nelson says a growing percentage of beef consumed in the U.S. is imported.

“We have displaced a big chunk of the cattle industry, which is the single biggest sector in agriculture,” he says.

He says R-CALF would like to see MCOOL restored in a manner that meets WTO approval. But he says the U.S. election has resulted in a slowdown on progress to meet that goal.

“I personally know of congressional offices that are working to restore MCOOL, but much of it had to wait until the election was over,” he says. “We’re very optimistic that we will see something happen.

“We raise a high-quality product, and right now we don’t have the ability to label that.”

Ethan Lane, vice president of government affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, says the NCBA supports origin labeling, but wants it to be a voluntary program.

According to NCBA policy, the program should be market-driven rather than being a mandated, government-run program.

“This is what our members are directing us to do,” Lane says. “We believe the real battlefield is with ‘Product of USA’ labeling. Right now, packers and retailers are allowed to put that label on anything that goes through a FSIS facility. We believe that is a misrepresentation, because it speaks to the processing facility rather than the origin of the product.”

Lane says under the Process Verified Program operated by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, individual producers have the option to attach labels to products “to allow them to capture more value in the supply chain.”

Nelson also has a problem with processing requirements.

“Right now, if you unwrap a pallet of frozen beef and then re-wrap it, you are meeting the further processing requirement,” Nelson says.

Nelson believes a mandatory program will be more effective.

“When NAFTA was signed, we weren’t importing much beef, but now we are,” he says. “When MCOOL was repealed, the protection for labeling foreign beef went away. We’re going to do all we can to bring MCOOL back.”

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Jeff DeYoung is livestock editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.

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