OLYMPIA — The beef industry’s civil war over country-of-origin labels has come to the Washington Legislature, where an unusually long and politically varied list of lawmakers are sponsoring a bill to require the state’s retailers to mark meat as either “USA beef” or “imported.”
The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, said the USA label should be reserved for cattle born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S., not imported to a feedlot or packing plant.
“It’s two different products in my opinion,” he said. “It’s just truth to the consumer.”
House Bill 2712 would require grocery stores to post a “conspicuous placard” by the “USA beef” and another by the “imported” beef. A cow born and slaughtered in the U.S. would qualify as USA beef if it didn’t spend more than 60 days outside the country.
Representatives of feedlots and packers say a state labeling law would harm relationships with Canadian producers they need.
“In the Northwest, we don’t have enough cattle to fill the feedlot and kill-plant capacity year-round,” Jared Easterday, president of the Washington Cattle Feeders Association, told the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.
Mandatory nationwide country-of-origin labels for beef were ruled unfair by a World Trade Organization arbitration panel in 2015. The panel concluded the labels hurt Canadian and Mexican producers and that they would be entitled to retaliatory tariffs of about $1 billion a year. Congress subsequently repealed the law.
R-CALF USA, a national ranchers’ group, has been working since then to bring back country-of-origin labeling. R-CALF says current labeling practices mislead consumers into thinking beef packaged in the U.S. was raised in the U.S.
The Cattle Producers of Washington brought the policy to Kretz. Meanwhile, a conservation group, the Lands Council, enlisted allies.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers, 27 in all, signed on as co-sponsors, representing the full range of the Legislature, from left to right. The state Department of Agriculture doesn’t have a position on the bill, but department policy adviser Evan Sheffels called the list of sponsors “one of the more impressive I’ve seen.”
“That is a strong indicator that folks want to know where the products they buy in the grocery store are from,” he said.
The Washington Fair Trade Coalition, whose members include labor, health, environmental, faith-based and social-justice groups, endorsed the bill. Coalition board member Stan Sorscher told legislators that labels tell him where his shirt came from. “My food is much more important than that,” he said.
Although it has broad bipartisan support, the bill is handicapped by not having full support from the beef industry. In addition to the cattle feeders association, the Washington Cattlemen’s Association opposes the bill.
Cattlemen’s association Executive Director Danny DeFranco said the state’s beef industry needs good relations with Canadian producers. “Our concern is putting up more walls,” he said.
Agri Beef lobbyist Paul Berendt said the company’s Toppenish plant processes 400,000 head of cattle a year and 30% to 45% spent time in Canada. Washington, Idaho and Oregon don’t have enough cows to sustain the plant, he said.
He warned a state labeling law would be vulnerable to lawsuits.
Kretz said Tuesday he was pressing ahead with the bill.
“The consumers are the ones who should be demanding it,” he said. “My motive is to help the cowboys stay alive.”