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Ranchers seek grassroots support for mandatory labeling law
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Link Reinhiller raises cattle near Hazen, North Dakota. He's concerned country-of-origin labeling laws will be negotiated away in the next round of world trade talks. (MPR Photo/Bob Reha)
Starting next fall, mandatory country-of-origin labeling for meat, fish and vegetables will become law. The mandate is part of the 2002 Farm Bill passed by Congress. Advocates say the law is important because it will let consumers know where their food is coming from. They say a recent case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, in Canada shows a need for the new labeling.

Moorhead, Minn. — Center, North Dakota looks like a typical small town. The cafe and bar are the busiest establishments. Across the street the Oliver County courthouse seems an unlikely place for world trade discussions. But that's exactly what the county board is debating.

Link Reinhiller is a cattle rancher and representive of the citizens group, Dakota Resource Council. The grassroots non-profit is part of a seven-state coalition lobbying county commissions. They want support for a resolution backing the labeling law. Reinhiller says even though Congress has passed the law, there is concern the labeling provisions could be used as a bargaining chip in the next round of world trade negotiations. Reinhiller says his group fears U.S. officials will offer to eliminate the law in return for trade concessions.

"If we can get some input, grassroots input from out in the country, forward it to the trade ambassador," says Reinhiller. "At least then they're hearing from the grassroots and not just bureaucrats."

Reinhiller says mandatory labeling is a plus for consumers. They can trace their food to its source. But Reinhiller also thinks consumers will pay more for food when they know where it came from. He says disease scares have shaken consumer confidence in the food system.

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Image David Porsborg chairs the Oliver County Commission.

The Oliver County Commissioners agree. Their vote was unanimous to support the country-of-origin labeling. Oliver County Commission Chair David Porsborg says the resolution makes sense.

"I agree with that 100 percent," says Porsborg. "If it's labeled Canada, let's put it this way, I would be reluctant to buy it."

So far labeling supporters have gotten two county commissions in North Dakota to sign the resolution. They have a goal of 50 signatures in a seven-state region.

Randy Huffman is a spokesman for the American Meat Institute Foundation. The foundation represents meat packers and processors.

"We think the country of origin labeling law is a bad law for a variety of reasons," says Huffman.

Huffman says country-of-origin labeling will do nothing to prevent animal diseases from entering the United States. He says a United States Department of Agriculture study shows mandatory labeling will increase costs for the meat packing industry.

"The USDA estimates the cost of compliance to the law will be in the neighborhood of $2.9 billion annually," says Huffman. "The bottom line is it adds cost to the system, with virtually no chance of recouping that cost. Because there is no additional value to consumers."

Dueling studies come up with different numbers. The USDA says mandatory labeling will cost nearly $3 billion dollars a year. Link Reinhiller disagrees. The North Dakota rancher says the University of Florida did an independent analysis. Their results show mandatory labeling will cost $290 million dollars a year.

Reinhiller says opponents miss the point. Mandatory labeling of meat is a preventive measure. He says the labeling will make it easier to track and locate problems.

"You can trace the origin much quicker, much easier," says Reinhiller. "I think that's one of the advantages of being able to know where the product comes from."

Opponents concede they can't stop the mandatory labeling law. Randy Huffman of the American Meat Institute says he hopes to affect the rules regulating the new law.

The United States Department of Agriculture hosts a series of public listening sessions this summer. USDA officials want the input about how the new law will be enforced. USDA officials will hold a session in St. Paul June 24th at the University of Minnesota.

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