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The politics of farming
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Livestock producer Gene Sandiger and soybean farmer Bryant Hokeness say they're in favor of country of origin labeling. But they don't want to see the cost of labeling passed on to farmers. (MPR Photo/Tim Post)
Farmers from across Minnesota are in Redwood County for Farmfest. The annual event features exhibits from nearly 500 farm related companies. Every year there's also plenty of talk of the politics behind farming. Four members of Minnesota's congressional delegation held a forum to discuss provisions of last year's Farm Bill. One of the issues that popped up was mandatory meat labeling.

Redwood County, Minn. — A steady morning rain fell on Farmfest's opening day. Under the huge Forum tent an audience of about 300 stayed dry. On stage was Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton, Republic Rep. Gil Gutneckt and Democratic Rep. Colin Peterson. The four talked about the effects of trade talks, renewable energy policy and food safety issues on Minnesota farmers. One issue that captured audience attention, was "country-of-origin" labeling.

The mandatory labeling of meat is a provision of the new Farm Bill. The goal is to let consumers see, on the label, what country their meat comes from. The new rule was supposed to go into effect this fall. But the USDA has stalled the move, saying it will cost too much to implement.

Republican Sen. Norm Coleman thinks holding off is a good idea. Coleman says he's in favor of labeling, but doesn't want to see the cost fall on farmers and ranchers.

"I'm deeply concerned about the way the law was passed," Coleman told farmers. "The burden is on Minnesota growers and Minnesota producers. As it is written right now it's very problematic."

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Image Rep. Colin Peterson

Democratic Rep. Colin Peterson said with changes, labeling could be cheaper. Peterson favors a system where farmers declare their livestock's origin.

"If we had self certification and changed some of these other underlying things, I don't think there'd a lot of cost and the benefits would go to the farmers. If we don't change it the packers will take it out of the farmer's hide," Peterson said.

Some livestock producers say they've been told by meat packers that labeling will cost $5 to $10 a head. That's an extra expense either paid by farmers and ranchers or by the consumer.

Republican Rep. Gil Gutknecht questions whether consumers are willing to pay more for meat labeled "Made in America". Gutnecht sites research by Canadian Pork producers that consumers are less than predictable.

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Image Republican Rep. Gil Gutknecht

"They have found that American consumers given the choice between American produced pork and Canadian pork actually prefer Candian pork," Gutknecth said. "They've had Canadian bacon on their pizzas and they think that's pretty good stuff. Consumer behavior and consumer attention is a little more complicated than we sometimes think."

The issue of who's going to pay for meat labeling angers Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton. Dayton says technology should make tracking and labeling the origin of meat a simple and inexpensive prospect.

"If we want to make it work it's not going to cost producers or consumers one fraction of a cent. If it's anymore than that someone's stealing the money," Dayton said.

Just a few yards away from the forum, farmers enjoyed a lunch of Minnesota grown beef at the American Beef Producers' tent. While eating a meal of barbecued beef, south western Minnesota livestock producer Gene Sandiger said country of origin labeling is a good idea. But Sandiger says the cost shouldn't fall on the nation's beleaguered beef producers.

"The food safety in the United States is the best in the world. Consumers are going to have to step up to the plate and be willing to pay for that," Sandiger said.

Southern Minnesota corn and soybean farmer Bryant Hokeness agrees. But Hokeness questions why labeling meat would cost so much. He says it should be as easy as labeling the origin of clothing.

The lawmakers at Tuesday's Farmfest say despite the interest, country of origin labeling is stalled out for the time being. They don't expect congressional action on the issue anytime soon.

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