Meat industry wants to kill country-of-origin label rule

Meat packers and other agribusinesses have formed a new lobbying coalition to block the U.S. Department of Agriculture from requiring meat to be packaged with a country-of-origin label. The group — the Meat Promotion Coalition — has hired a lobbying firm that specializes in agricultural issues to make the case on Capitol Hill that country-of-origin labeling is too costly to implement.

Meat packers and other agribusinesses have formed a new lobbying coalition to block the U.S. Department of Agriculture from requiring meat to be packaged with a country-of-origin label.

The group — the Meat Promotion Coalition — has hired a lobbying firm that specializes in agricultural issues to make the case on Capitol Hill that country-of-origin labeling is too costly to implement.

Cargill, Tyson Food, the National Cattlemen’s Association and the National Pork Producers Council are among the nine members of the new coalition, which hired the firm Lesher & Russell.

In a twist, the American Farm Bureau Federation, which had supported mandatory country-of-origin labeling, or COOL, is now part of the coalition.

Critics already succeeded in delaying the implementation of the labeling rule — which would enable consumers to see whether their meat was 100 percent homegrown — by attaching an amendment to an omnibus appropriations measure in 2003.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials now have until Sept. 30, 2006, to finalize the rule. Congress had mandated that the USDA implement its rule in 2004 in the 2002 farm bill.

One big bone of contention between the two sides is how costly the labeling rule would be to implement.

Proponents say packers have greatly overestimated the costs of implementing the rule.

Meat packers and large agribusinesses oppose the rule because they want continued access to imported meat, which is often cheaper, without facing any potential penalty in the marketplace from consumers who may think American meat is safer, said Tom Buis, the chief lobbyist for the National Farmers Union, a group of 300,000 farm and ranch families that wants mandatory country-of-origin labeling.

Because various federal agencies already track meat imports, the burden of complying with a new rule is not nearly as significant as critics argue, Buis said.

The USDA has estimated that it would cost the ag industry $1.9 billion to implement during the first year alone. That figure was later called “not well supported” and “questionable” in a review conducted by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

The Meat Promotion Coalition continues to contend, however, that the costs on the industry will be significant, and won’t provide any measurable improvement in food safety.

In a point paper being distributed on Capitol Hill, the coalition notes that USDA estimates now place regulatory and implementation costs at between $583 million and $3.9 billon during the first year. Those figures include the cost of labeling fish and fresh fruit and vegetables, in addition to meat products.

The group says that packers will have to invest $25 million per plant to comply with the new rule.

“It’s going to add costs to beef or pork, one way, shape or form,” said William Lesher, a former assistant secretary at the USDA during the Reagan administration and founder of Lesher & Russell.

Both groups contend that American consumers may turn away from imported meat, believing it to be less safe to eat — but they part ways as to whether imported meat is any less safe.

An underlying issue is the discovery in Canada of cattle with bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Humans who eat the meat may contract BSE, or mad-cow disease, which is fatal.

The USDA wants to reopen cattle trade with Canada after banning imports from that country for two years.

The Meat Promotion Coalition notes in its position paper that imported meat must meet safety standards established by the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service. The coalition instead wants compliance with new labeling rules to be voluntary.

But Buis, who advised former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) on agricultural issues, said a voluntary labeling rule would be “like a voluntary speed limit.” Few packers would comply, he said.