Let’s start with a question. Where are you sitting right now? Are you reading this newspaper in your office or your home? Now, pick up any object around you. Chances are good that whatever you have in your hand — perhaps food or a coffee mug — it’s labeled “product of” where it was made.
But what about the beef you eat?
Maybe your beef actually has a label on it; it might say “Product of USA.” Unfortunately, that label can be extremely misleading. Your beef may have been processed in the U.S., but it could have been born, raised and slaughtered overseas in Brazil or China. If it was packaged here in the U.S., however, it is eligible for a “Product of USA” label. That just isn’t right. Imported meat labeled “Product of USA,” betrays American ranchers and misleads rural communities and consumers. It is downright fraudulent.
As consumers, we have the right to know where our food comes from and the right to choose American. Not only do many of us want to support our local economies, we also want to support American ranchers, meat cutters and food safety oversight. Some people won’t even buy dog food produced overseas because they only trust American safety standards!
One wonders if these same people know where the beef they serve their families comes from. Consumers are currently unable to make choices about their beef that reflect their values and standards, and they are paying higher prices than they should for products of lesser quality. It also means that American producers are getting shortchanged.
Producers need an honest and fair market to thrive. It is simply impossible for a family rancher to succeed and comply with food safety, animal traceability, conservation practices and other American standards without distinguishing their meat from other countries with fewer standards. Currently, each of these products — one raised by a Montana rancher and one shipped from China — might say “Product of USA” just because they were packaged in an American facility. How “uncool” is that?
It wasn’t always this way. We used to have a COOL law — Country-of-Origin Labeling — that applied to beef (and pork, too). COOL was passed in Montana in 2005, and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., then successfully shepherded COOL into the 2008 Farm Bill. In 2015, due to tariff threats from Canada and Mexico, Congress repealed COOL. Corporations like Tyson and Cargill, who profit from obscuring the origin of your meat, were highly influential in the effort to repeal COOL.
While we believe the fight for national COOL legislation is worth waging (especially as “NAFTA 2.0” will be debated in Congress in the coming months), we are also excited by a bill to restore COOL in Montana in the 2019 legislative session.
The beauty of the Montana COOL bill is its simplicity. It only requires placards (signs) be placed in grocery store meat sections and uses existing labor inspections for implementation. It’s easy, affordable and is a no-brainer for any legislator who believes in fairness, honesty and transparency in the marketplace. COOL has also enjoyed a 90 percent approval rating from consumers since day one.
Right now, we are alarmed by the economic concentration threatening our democratic way of life. COOL is an important first step to restore transparency to our food system.
COOL also fosters connections between consumers and the farmers and ranchers, people whom we rely on for our food and stewardship of the land.
Let’s make Montana an even COOLer place to live, work, ranch and play. Tell your legislator to support the restoration of Country-of-Origin Labeling in 2019.
Jean Lemire Dahlman is a Rosebud County rancher; Stuart Shay is a Billings resident. Both are members of the Northern Plains Resource Council, a grassroots conservation and family agriculture group that organizes Montanans to protect our water quality, family farms and ranches, and unique quality of life.