Should ranchers label baby calves?

February 18, 2003

By George Lauby, Farm Editor

The North Platte Telegraph

621 N. Chestnut

P.O. Box 370

North Platte, Nebraska 69103-0370

308-532-6000 or 1-800-753-7092

Fax: 308-532-9268

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Meat packers are advising ranchers to slap the equivalent of a "Born in the USA" label on baby calves when they are born this spring, under a law that will mandate labels of the country of origin of meat in 2004.

There is no need for that -- no need at all -- a ranch group says.

The question is a hot topic of debate in the meat industry.

In September 2004 a new Country of Origin Label (COOL) will become law. Retail packages of produce, peanuts, meats and fish will have a label that says, from the US, Argentina, Canada or other nation.

To make that label credible will mean tracing meats back to U.S. ranches, IBP and Swift & Company have told livestock producers.

The Organization for Competitive Markets and R-Calf-USA say otherwise.

"It is U.S. produced unless labeled otherwise," OCM attorney Mike Stumo said recently.

Accordingly, R-Calf says that ranchers only need to sign an affidavit saying their cattle were raised in the USA.

"The legislation passed was "country of origin" -- not "farm or ranch of origin." R-Calf said in a recent press release.

However, meat packers are telling ranchers should pay most of what it says will be expensive identification costs.

"Half of the first-year record keeping expenses of COOL, or $1 billion, will be on farmers, ranchers and others," IBP said in late January in a letter to cattle and hog producers.

In a Feb. 3 letter, meat packer Swift & Company said "record keeping requirements are effective immediately for any cattle born."

"The last thing cow/calf producers need is questions and concerns about the marketability of their animals," the Nebraska Farm Bureau said Friday. "Producers need further guidance from USDA now."

Federal rules that have not even been written for the law are causing such concerns.

"COOL legislation clearly states that a mandatory ID program cannot be used. There is no obligation on anyone at this point. The rules of mandatory labeling are not even drafted yet, nor have any comments on proposed rules been asked for," R-Calf chief executive Bill Bullard said.

Last December, the USDA estimated the food industry would pay $2 billion in the first year for the new labels.

R-Calf, which has added 3,000 members during 2002, says that USDA estimate is wildly inflated.

"USDA's report estimated that each producer -- all 2 million -- would spend 20 hours the first year to establish a record keeping system," R-Calf said. "But, over 90 percent of U.S. ranchers and farmers do not handle imported product."

Country of origin labels are needed, said Margene Eiguren, an Oregon cow-calf producer.

"We know where all our cattle come from," Eiguren said. "It's not going to be a big deal for us, but we want to tell the consumers that we have pride in our US product. I don't think Coke is willing to sell their products under the name "cola" or Ford sell its products under the name cars." We want to at least sell our product as US Beef."