North Dakota's two rancher groups and two U.S. senators believe changes need to be made to mandatory U.S. meat-labeling rules now that the World Trade Organization will allow Canada and Mexico to impose more than $1 billion in retaliatory tariffs on American goods.
However, the two groups that represent the state's ranchers have different thoughts on whether Congress should change the "country of origin" meat-labeling rules or do away with them altogether.
Supporters of the rules say they give consumers more information about food origins and might help U.S. ranchers better compete in the marketplace. Meatpackers say they require costly paperwork, and some ranchers feared the mandatory country-of-origin labeling rules, or COOL, would lead to tariffs that could hurt U.S. beef exports.
The WTO ruled in May that labels on packaged steaks and other cuts of meat in the U.S. saying where the animals were born, raised and slaughtered put Canadian and Mexican livestock at a disadvantage because it gave meatpackers an incentive to favor U.S. livestock. The WTO said Monday that Canada could impose $780 million in retaliatory tariffs and Mexico could impose $228 million.
"What happened was exactly what we thought was going to happen," said Bowman rancher Steve Brooks, president of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association, which earlier this year had called on Congress to repeal the labeling law to head off tariffs.
The Independent Beef Association of North Dakota, another rancher group, supports the labeling law and in May said the onus should be on Canada and Mexico to prove they are harmed.
Dawson rancher and IBAND President Larry Kinev said Tuesday he's disappointed but not surprised by the WTO's move.
"All they have to do is come up with a number, and we have to prove otherwise," he said of Canada and Mexico.
IBAND hopes Congress passes a bill to keep meat labeling but make it voluntary, and that pressure from consumers and the retail industry will lead to meat labeling, Kinev said.
"As a producer, I'm told everywhere I go that customers want to know more and more and more about their food," he said.
The Stockmen's Association fears that other countries could take issue with even a voluntary labeling law, Brooks said, adding, "we would just as soon have a total repeal."
Members of Congress are considering working a repeal of the labeling law into a massive year-end spending bill. North Dakota Sens. John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp both support a bill that would allow for voluntary labeling of meat as a way of enabling U.S. producers to mark their products as American-made.
Making COOL labeling voluntary is the "one clear path forward" for Congress, said Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union and a former North Dakota agriculture commissioner.