OLYMPIA — A bill asking meat suppliers to package beef as either "USA" or "imported" passed the Washington House by a wide margin Tuesday.
House Bill 2712 would reinstate the spirit of a federal country-of-origin labeling law that Congress eliminated in 2015. The measure passed by the state House depends on beef suppliers telling retailers where the cow was born and raised. Meat packers oppose resurrecting the label law, however.
The bill now goes to the Senate. The prime sponsor, Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, said Wednesday he will try to make the bill more explicit so that retailers get information to pass along to consumers.
"I want to make it clear that the supplier has that responsibility, and I'll be talking to the Senate about that," he said.
Agri Beef lobbyist Paul Berendt said the Washington meat-packing company remains concerned a mandatory label law would violate trade agreements.
"We want to make sure this bill would not trigger punitive actions against any of our agricultural commodities," he said. "Our reading of (the House bill) is that it's not a mandatory labeling bill."
Federal lawmakers dropped country-of-origin labels for beef and pork in 2015 after the World Trade Organization ruled they discriminated against Canadian and Mexican producers. The beef industry, nationally and in Washington, has been divided over whether to bring back the labels.
The Cattle Producers of Washington supports mandatory labeling, hoping to capitalize on consumer demand for domestically produced food. Feedlots and packing plants, which rely on imported cattle to stay full, oppose country-of-origin labels.
The Washington Cattlemen's Association also opposed Kretz's original proposal, which placed a stronger mandate on retailers to label beef. The association has changed its position to "neutral" because the amended version passed by the House relies on voluntary actions, the association's executive vice president, Danny DeFranco, said.
"We're not opposed to labeling by any stretch of the imagination," he said.
Mandatory country-of-origin labels, however, might sour Canadian beef buyers on Washington cattle, DeFranco said. "If this alienates our partners to the north, it could potentially be a significant hit to the value of our cattle."
To qualify as "USA beef," under the House bill, meat would have to come from a cow born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S. A cow could spend up to 60 days of its life outside the U.S. and still qualify. Beef from cows that don't meet that criteria would be considered "imported." Beef suppliers would be asked to specify which country the cow was raised.
Retailers would have to "make an effort to display information that is clearly visible," according to the bill. The law would apply to beef shipped with a sign that the retailer could put in the display case. The state Department of Agriculture would be directed to write rules to carry out the bill.
Supporters of country-of-origin labels say they would prevent consumers from being deceived into thinking a cow born and raised in another country, but slaughtered and packaged in the states was a "product of the U.S."
Labeling bills have been introduced in a few states. R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard, whose organization has been campaigning to bring back federal labels, said he knows of no other state where a label bill has passed an entire chamber.
"We fully support these state efforts," he said. "State actions might initiate some action at the federal level."
Kretz's bill attracted an unusually long and politically diverse list of co-sponsors and passed the House by a 92-6 vote.
Kretz said he introduced the bill to help ranchers, but support from consumer groups probably will decide the proposal's fate. "I think it's the most powerful thing behind the bill," he said.
Stevens County rancher Scott Nielsen, who testified in support of the bill on behalf of the Cattle Producers of Washington, said Wednesday that it's "an obvious, incredibly simple thing we're asking for."
"We are supportive of giving the consumer the information and allowing the consumer to make an informed choice," he said.