The Beef Wars

Two new USDA programs could make--or break--the family rancher
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Two new USDA programs could make--or break--the family rancher
beef

The “Beef” sign called to me from across the Wal-Mart. It was high enough that I could see it peeking over the aisles, past the fruits and vegetables and frozen pizzas. Beneath it stood 40 feet of refrigerated wall, holding hundreds of pounds of bloody, red beef. Gorgeous steaks of rib eye and sirloin, bacon-wrapped filet mignon, hunks of stew meat and beef brisket, mixed with enormous, 5-pound logs of ground beef that rivaled those in my woodpile.

I scanned the packages of ground chuck; staring up at me were little stickers from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), certifying that inspectors had approved the meat. Nowhere, though, was a sticker telling me where the beef was from. I picked up a pound of meat shrink-wrapped to a Styrofoam tray. Only $3.28—a stunningly low price for beef. I flipped it over, looking for some kind of identification. I read down past the nutrition facts. And there I found it, in small print, just above the ingredients: “Product of U.S., Canada, and Mexico.” That’s one hell of an international cow.

Although the Wal-Mart label is intentionally vague—no cow will spend time in three countries during its lifetime—until recently, consumers had no ability to identify where their beef came from. And that was a problem, especially with the enormous popularity of books like Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin 2006) by Michael Pollan and documentaries like Food, Inc. (Magnolia 2009), both of which questioned the safety of the American food supply. Today, more than ever, Americans want to know where their food is coming from—and that puts cattle ranchers squarely in the middle of a culture war over environmental methods of food production, safety, and marketing.

The USDA is finally catching up to the debate and recently introduced two programs in an attempt to combat consumer worries: Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) and the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). COOL requires American grocery stores to identify the producing nations behind all meat, poultry, fruits, vegetables, and most nuts being sold on their shelves. NAIS, meanwhile, is an animal health program meant to track cows in case of dangerous animal-borne diseases, like foot-and-mouth and mad-cow disease, back to the source of the outbreak. Both programs are designed to boost transparency in the American beef industry, but farm advocates are worried. While COOL allows ranchers to market their American-raised beef and potentially increase beef prices, critics say NAIS could be a financial death blow to the family ranch—and do little to help decrease animal disease.

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Two decades ago, Tim Johnson, then a Democratic congressman from South Dakota, noticed a concerning problem: While just about every product sold in the United States—from sneakers to cars—was labeled with its country of origin, meat and produce were exempted. Johnson tried to introduce a country-of-origin-labeling law at the time, but failed. Congress wasn’t interested. More than a decade later, Johnson had become a senator. Prices for American agriculture commodities, including beef, had begun to drop—due in part to free trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement and those enacted by the World Trade Organization (WTO)—which helped convince members of Congress to pass the 2002 Farm Bill, with COOL requirements included. They hoped that consumers would be encouraged to spend their dollars on American meat and produce at the grocery store—with American ranchers and farmers profiting from the increased demand for their product.

COOL isn’t all-inclusive—there are loopholes the size of interstate tunnels for trucks to drive through. Any products that are processed—even minimally—are exempted. That includes foods such as prepackaged bags of mixed greens, meats that are cured (like bacon), and items that are processed by a manufacturer (like boneless buffalo wings). And any retailer that sells less than $230,000 annually in fresh produce—like a butcher or a fishmonger—is exempt from the law, as are restaurants.

The labeling requirements cleft the agricultural community in two, with many small ranchers and farmers supporting the regulations, while the conglomerates campaigned against them. Groups like the National Farmers Union; the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF USA); and the United States Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) supported the law, which they believed would help market their product. “People want to know where their food comes from,” says Jon Wooster, the president of USCA. “There’s been some issues with imported foods, and the U.S. consumer thinks that the products of the U.S. can be safer. It gives everyone peace of mind.”

Meanwhile, groups representing the large American meatpackers, including the American Meat Institute and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, as well as grocery retailers, virulently opposed the new labeling regulations, arguing that the recordkeeping would be incredibly expensive and could severely impact the importing and exporting of beef. American meatpackers import more than 2 million head of cattle annually for slaughter from Canada and Mexico, where the animals run between 8 and 15 cents per pound cheaper—making it ideal for products like ground beef.

“We consider it an awfully expensive way of going about doing something,” Allen Matthys, vice president for federal and state regulations at the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Products Association, told the Chicago Tribune in 2007. “Regarding the appropriateness of an ingredient coming from a country, you need to deal with that country and that ingredient. Just putting a country-of-origin stamp on it doesn’t help anybody.”

Lobbied hard by the opposition, Congress pushed back COOL’s start date for half a dozen years, in what Senator Johnson called “a series of backroom deals and closed-door discussions.” Finally, after years of push back by consumer groups and ranchers, the USDA was given the go-ahead to tighten and enact COOL at the tail end of the Bush administration in 2008. The labels, which have been around for a year now, have caused some confusion, but retailers are beginning to settle into the program. Unfortunately, it’s been difficult to tease apart the impact of COOL since the Great Recession has upended the entire economy. “We haven’t seen any economic studies yet on the program,” says Duane Lenz, director of analysis services at CattleFax, an information organization for the beef industry.

Canada and Mexico have been strong opponents of COOL, going so far as filing suit against the U.S. in 2009 for violating the WTO treaty. “COOL is discouraging U.S. retailers, processors, feedlots, and producers from buying Canadian livestock and meat,” the Canadians argued in a statement to the WTO. “The negative impact on Canadian beef, pork, and cattle exporters has been significant.”

Consumers, though, are fans of the new labels: A survey conducted by Consumers Union, the nonprofit parent company of Consumer Reports, found that 92 percent of Americans wanted their food’s origin clearly labeled. “Farmers and ranchers need to promote their American products,” says Patty Lovera, the assistant director of Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit consumer safety group. “And consumers need to make a decision at the store.”

John Reid, a cow-calf rancher from Ordway, Colo., and a member of the USCA, agrees: “COOL gives us the opportunity to differentiate our product and let the American consumer pick a product they prefer. The consumers have a right to know where the product they’re purchasing is from. And we think we raise the best and safest product in the world, and we want to sell it that way.”

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While ranchers largely are behind COOL, many are concerned about NAIS, a USDA program that would require livestock producers to track all animals from birth to slaughter with RFID tags—basically individual bar codes identifying each animal. When the animal is sold—to a feedlot, and then to a slaughterhouse—the tag stays with the animal. The basic idea is that if an animal were to contract a disease, such as mad-cow or foot-and-mouth disease, the USDA would be able to track it back to its source.

The push for NAIS was started by the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, which is funded by agriculture conglomerates like Cargill and Monsanto. The hope is that foreign countries like Japan will be impressed with the extensive tracking system and reopen their borders to American beef, which have been restricted since the 2003 outbreak of mad-cow disease. Right now, NAIS is voluntary—the USDA is working with state agriculture departments to encourage rancher participation. A few states—including Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan—have required ranchers and individuals owning animals to register their premises. As of yet, no states require all animals to wear tags.

Small ranchers fear that the cost will be prohibitive, cutting into their already meager profits. The tags can be expensive, as much as $2 a head, and would require scanners and computer software; some estimates say NAIS could cost a 50-head ranch as much as $1,500 a year—$30 per head of cattle annually. Groups like the USCA have come out against the program, as have some consumer unions, saying it won’t do anything to improve American food safety, which is more important than the exporting profits of a few huge companies.

Trying to stem the opposition—or at least understand where it was coming from—Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack conducted a listening tour across 14 states last summer; the majority of participants, including the small ranchers, were strongly opposed to the NAIS system.

Reid, the Ordway rancher, had the chance to speak to Vilsack. “I understand that we need to improve traceability and be able to follow disease outbreaks,” says Reid. “But in the West, we already have several programs in place that make traceability work.” Branding and non-RFID tagging are common, arguably making NAIS redundant and expensive.

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As American consumers continue to demand more information about the origins of their food, as well as its safety, both the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration are expected to ramp up their traceability and inspection programs. NAIS, though, will likely be forced to evolve—if not die outright. This past year, Congress gutted funding for the USDA program by 65 percent, meaning that NAIS will continue to be voluntary, with low participation rates. “With the changing of the administrations, there’s quite a lot of uncertainty about NAIS,” says Reid. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

COOL, meanwhile, is starting to take off. While my Wal-Mart-bought ground beef was labeled with the vague “Product of U.S., Canada, Mexico,” other retailers are beginning to turn to exclusively American beef: H-E-B, a grocery chain in Texas, has started to market the American-raised meat, and many Safeway stores have switched away from multi-origin meat to the simpler “Product of U.S.”

Ranchers want to keep pushing the program forward, to increase the profile of American beef among consumers. In 2008, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., introduced the Beef Checkoff Modernization Act, which would help funnel money from the USDA’s checkoff program—currently, a $1 tax on every head of cattle—toward an American-beef-focused program. “Right now, we use the checkoff dollars to promote beef,” said Tester at the time of the bill’s introduction. “You know, ‘Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner.’ What we are going to try to do is make U.S. beef the choice for dinner.” The bill failed to pass in 2008 and again in 2009, and Tester is planning on reintroducing it in 2010; he’s slowly gaining momentum.

Still, COOL faces some real challenges: Last May, Canada and Mexico filed suit with the WTO, claiming that the labeling was unfairly hurting their cattle industry. Objective statistics are hard to come by, however, as COOL has only been in effect for about one year. As of press time, the WTO was assembling a dispute-settlement panel to hear the Canadian and Mexican claims, but the disagreement is expected to drag out for months, if not years.

Despite facing opposition by the food conglomerates, American ranchers remain encouraged that COOL and NAIS will eventually go their way. Why? The American consumer.

“We’re getting positive feedback from consumers [about labeling],” says Jess Peterson, executive vice president of the USCA. “There’s a value to beef that’s bred and raised by the American cowboy.”

Land Link

As the country’s farmers and ranchers reach retirement age and their replacements dwindle, a program has sprung up to match beginners with established agricultural know-how. So-called Land Link programs operate in about 20 states and offer a variety of programs to help agricultural aspirants get a partnership stake in a venerable industry with notoriously low yields and skyrocketing entrance fees.

More than preserving agricultural legacies, Land Link, which was created by the Center for Rural Affairs (CRA) in Nebraska, teaches real-world skills. The 100 Beef Cow program, for instance, provides recent ag grads with cattle as well as finance and marketing strategies, making them more of a partner than a hired hand. In exchange for their land, established ranchers get new energy on the range and ideas for protecting their agricultural legacy. The CRA also organizes programs to train young ranchers in finance and marketing, as well as production.

One challenge has been to find landowners willing to make their land available for leasing by young farmers and ranchers—especially important out West, where land prices are hardly aligned with what the land can produce or sustain.

“Land access is the critical issue and we need to find ways for existing landowners to make their land available,” says Wyatt Fraas, who heads the CRA’s programs for beginning farmers and ranchers.

Fostering partnerships between young and old involves more than creative financing or training marketing-minded ranchers and farmers, according to Frass. Communities and schools need to enlist young people.

“Government can help at the policy level to make the risk a little less,” Fraas says. “This is not just energy and new ideas, but it’s about continuing the legacy. Most senior farmers and ranchers would love to be an advisor to somebody... They know what it takes to make the land work and that knowledge should not be lost.” —Jason Blevins