Montana legislators have tabled two bills that would require retailers to display placards at meat counters differentiating where beef and pork products are from.
The Montana House Agriculture Committee heard testimony Tuesday on House Bill 594, known as the Montana Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) Act. Rep. Bradley Hamlett, D-Cascade, is the bill’s primary sponsor. The proposed law was tabled in a 9-8 vote by the committee.
The legislation mandates labeling in three categories: Meat that is born, raised, and processed in the U.S.; meat that is born and raised outside the U.S.; and meat that cannot be verified with country-of-origin.
Members of the Northern Plains Resource Council, the Montana Cattlemen’s Association and the Montana Farmers Union testified in support of the bill. The Montana Stockgrowers Association, the Montana Farm Bureau and the Montana Retail Association testified against the legislation.
A Montana COOL bill was first passed in 2005, however, the country-of-origin-labeling law sunset after a federal COOL law was enacted in 2009. That federal law was repealed under pressure from NAFTA in 2015, according to the Northern Plains Resource Council.
“In 2016, the USDA allowed a loophole for beef and pork to be labeled ‘Product of USA,’ even if it is only processed or packaged here,” said Northern Plains member and Forsyth rancher Jean Lemire Dahlman, in testimony delivered to the House Ag committee.
“Oftentimes, USA beef is mixed in with cheaper imported beef, misleading our consumers and defrauding our ranchers,” continued Dahlman.
Last week, Senate Bill 206 was tabled in the Senate Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation committee. State Sen. Al Olszewski, R-Kalispell, introduced the bill with essentially the same intent as House Bill 594, with added language about lab-grown meat.
Montana Farmers Union member Jeff Bangs described Olszewski’s bill as good policy for producers and consumers.
“It’s also good to restart a national discussion around what’s being done currently, which is a volunteer labeling system that is not truthful.”
Larry Hendrickson, a commissioner from Liberty County, noted his bottled water clearly labels the source, but “I don’t know where my steak came from.”
Brad Griffin, president of the Montana Retail Association, which represents most grocery businesses in the state, said it would be better if the issues raised in the bill were tackled at the federal level.
“It’s far too complicated for one state to solve,” he told the Senate committee. “It’s not a problem that can be solved at the end of the line by retailers. It needs to start with ranchers and farmers and move up through the production line.”
He suggested that packing plants could remedy the problem with tracking devices.
Bonita Cremer, a cattle rancher near Melville, said it’s unfair to expect a retailer to verify information they have no way of verifying.
“When those calves leave our ranch, they go to a slaughterhouse - that’s where the chain of identity is broken.”
Jay Bodnar, of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, said retailers need to be more involved in the discussion, and added that his group had concerns about penalties and fines associated with the bill.
“We want to make sure we’re putting bad actors in jail, but I don’t think we want to be putting retailers in jail,” he said.
Olszewski said the intent of the legislation is to rebalance the market in Montana.
“It sounds like the processors have a near monopoly or a monopoly, and they’re not telling us this information, even though they have it, because they don’t have to,” he said. “I’m a free-market guy ... but when you have monopoly abusing a complex problem like this, that’s when we should get in line and do something with regulations.”