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Farmers and consumers demand country of origin labeling be included in Farm Bill

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Farmers and consumers demand country of origin labeling be included in Farm Bill

Jun 12, 2024 | 6:55 am ET
By Rhonda Perry
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Farmers and consumers demand country of origin labeling be included in Farm Bill
Description
Country of Origin Labeling is a federal consumer labeling law that requires most grocery stores and supermarkets to identify the country of origin on certain foods (Lance Cheung/USDA).

Congress should stop hiding behind the unelected, bureaucratic, pro-corporate World Trade Organization and restore Country of Origin Labeling for meat in the 2024 Farm Bill.

The U.S. House of Representatives released their draft of the Farm Bill, the Senate distributed their Farm Bill framework and neither includes mandatory country of origin labeling for meat.

Country of origin labeling should absolutely be included in the Farm Bill. If you’re a farmer, consumer or taxpayer, here’s why it matters.

Country of origin labeling is tremendously popular with consumers and producers alike. Consumer support for country of origin labeling is overwhelmingly high, with 89 percent of consumers supporting country of origin labeling. It is one of the rare places in which we have widespread agreement from a vast majority of Americans, yet, somehow, it becomes “controversial” when it gets to our nation’s capital.

In the 2008 Farm Bill, Congress took a significant step forward by passing mandatory country of origin labeling for various products, including meat.This legislation empowered consumers with information about where their food came from and enabled American producers to compete fairly against foreign imports.

However, the corporate meat processing industry has opposed mandatory country of origin labeling; lobbying tirelessly to undermine its implementation. Despite their efforts, our country of origin labeling law stood firm until Canada and Mexico, doing the bidding for global meatpackers, challenged our country of origin labeling law before the WTO, which ruled against us. In 2015, following the WTO ruling, Congress repealed mandatory labeling for beef and pork, caving to pressure from multinational meatpacking companies and lobbyists.

The importance of country of origin labeling cannot be overstated. In a marketplace without labeling, multinational corporations maintain leverage over prices, often to the detriment of American farmers and consumers. Leveraging imports, they are able to raise consumer prices while lowering prices paid to U.S. farmers.  In 2023 alone, the U.S. imported 3.7 billion pounds of boxed beef and 2 million live cattle—and consumers cannot see where it came from!

The implementation of country of origin labeling led to an increase in the prices paid to American farmers, underscoring its positive impact on domestic agriculture. It turns out that consumers want to — and will — choose American products, supporting American farmers and economies. However, the resulting drop in prices paid to U.S. cattle farmers since country of origin labeling was rescinded has been no less drastic. Immediately after country of origin labeling was rescinded, the price of cattle plummeted and cow/calf producers’ profit dropped by 30%, the largest one-year drop in history.

When you look at the 2022 Census of Agriculture, the economic effects go even further. The 2022 Ag Census reports a shocking loss of cattle producers: from 2017-2022, the U.S. lost 150,569 cattle operations, and Missouri alone lost 9,954 cattle operations (which is 20% of MO cattle operations). This is wealth extracted from our communities and bound for distant shores.

This wealth is more than just dollars and cents, especially in Missouri’s rural communities, where family farmers are major economic drivers. Missouri is second only to Texas in the number of cattle operations. This wealth represents people’s livelihoods and a way of life, farms not passed down to the next generation, and businesses on Main Street shuttered because those dollars aren’t circulating locally. For multinational conglomerates, that’s just the cost of doing business.

But for people out here, working the livestock and the land 365 days a year, who have tied their fates to the seasons and to the knowledge, skill and land passed down for generations, that cost is simply too high.

Contrary to industry claims, implementing country of origin labeling does not necessitate an overhaul of existing infrastructure. Processors already possess the capability to provide such information, as evidenced by their tracking of marketing attributes and USDA grading. country of origin labeling simply requires the maintenance of information regarding the origin of imported meat and livestock.

The WTO’s ruling against mandatory country of origin labeling for meat represents a flawed decision that undermines our national sovereignty and consumer rights.

Repealing country of origin labeling in 2015 was not Congress’ only option. Negotiated settlements are commonplace in WTO disputes, allowing us to keep domestic policies without paying penalties. The U.S. could have engaged in discussions with Canada and Mexico to address broader trade disputes, essentially trading other issues to safeguard country of origin labeling. Or even simply paid the fine, as we do in other cases. Recent trade fights make it clear that the WTO’s era of retaliation is over. Congress can’t continue to hide behind the WTO on this.

It is imperative for Congress to reevaluate its stance on country of origin labeling. It’s frankly absurd to think that virtually every other product has an origin label, and yet meat is excluded. By prioritizing consumer rights and fair competition, Congress can reaffirm its commitment to American producers and consumers.

Letting a flawed decision from a now virtually defunct international trade panel dictate our domestic policy undermines the democratic process and erodes consumer trust. The Emperor is naked as a jaybird and everyone can see it. It’s time to bring transparency back to the meat industry and empower consumers with the information they deserve. It’s time to put mandatory country of origin labeling back in the Farm Bill.