A lawsuit seeking to require imported meat to again be labeled is getting a mixed reaction from the cattle industry.
Food standards in other countries aren’t nearly as stringent as those in the United States, said Dave Dashiell, a district manager with the Cattle Producers of Washington, one of several groups that filed the lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The lawsuit, now in federal court in Spokane, seeks to overturn a March 2016 decision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to revoke regulations requiring imported meat products to be labeled with their country of origin. That change allowed imported meat to be sold as U.S. products, the lawsuit said.
“Consumers understandably want to know where their food comes from,” said David Muraskin of Washington, D.C., an attorney for Public Justice, another plaintiff in the lawsuit. “With this suit, we’re fighting policies that put multinational corporations ahead of domestic producers and shroud the origins of our food supply in secrecy.”
However, the Washington Cattlemen’s Association opposes reinstating the labeling requirement.
“After six years of implementation, we could not see any benefit,” the association’s executive vice president, Sarah Ryan, said in an email. “All beef which enters the United States and is consumed here meets the exact same safety standards as domestically produced beef.”
Country-of-origin labeling is not a safety program, it’s a marketing program, so there is no risk to consumers by not having the meat labeled with its country of origin, she said.
Brad McDowell, president of AB Foods, a beef processing plant that employs hundreds in Toppenish, said consumers have seen no value in country-of-origin labeling and that the process places an enormous cost on producers.
Animals imported from Canada and Mexico to be slaughtered in the United States would not be considered to be of U.S. origin. However, McDowell noted that each animal would be examined and processed in a USDA-inspected facility, so there’s no reason consumers should worry about lower safety standards.
McDowell said country-of-origin labeling rules requiring that foreign and domestic livestock be kept separate are needless and costly. He said keeping the animals segregated in feed yards and keeping the meat and packaging materials separate in processing plants is difficult and expensive.
“That causes multimillion-dollar operational impacts just to put a half-cent label on the package,” he said.
In 2009, Canada and Mexico challenged country-of-origin labeling in a lawsuit to the World Trade Organization, claiming the requirement was discriminatory and severely hampered trade with the United States. The World Trade Organization eventually ruled in favor of Canada and Mexico, saying they could impose billion-dollar tariffs on United States goods in retaliation of the requirement.
McDowell and Ryan cited this retaliation as a reason why their respective companies oppose country-of-origin labeling.
Currently, meat imported to the United States isn’t required to be labeled with the country it came from because of a March 2016 decision by the Agriculture Department to revoke regulations requiring such labeling, which had been in place since 2009.
The lawsuit said the decision allows imported meat to be sold as native U.S. products, and that it violates the Federal Meat Inspection Act, which requires all meat from foreign countries be marked as such.
Labeling imported meat products with their country of origin allows corporations to sell low-quality meat using the United States’ reputation, Dashiell said. It also leaves no way to find out where the meat came from, which a majority of consumers say is important to them, he said.
Bill Bullard of United Stockgrowers said the labeling is essential to allow Americans to support U.S. ranchers. “Empowering consumers to buy American beef with country-of-origin labels will strengthen America’s economy,” Bullard said.
Multinational corporations use the lack of clear labels “to import more beef from more foreign countries, including countries with questionable food safety practices,” he said.
Without country-of-origin labeling, “domestic ranchers and farmers tend to receive lower prices for their meat because multinational companies can import meat and misleadingly present it as homegrown,” Public Justice said in a news release.
The lawsuit asks the court to vacate USDA’s current regulations, which allow corporations that import beef and pork and other products into the United States to label that meat “Product of USA.”
• Information from The Associated Press was included in this report.
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