050408 Montana to Back Country of Origin Meat LabelsApril 14, 2005
Helena - Montana is set to become one of a handful of states to beat the federal government in requiring grocery stores to list the country of origin of most meat sold.
The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to pass House Bill 406, by Rep. Bob Bergren, D-Havre. The bill passed its final hurdle on a broad, bipartisan 80-20 vote. Just the day before, only one Republican, Rep. Jack Ross of Absarokee, voted with all 50 Democrats in favor of the bill. The bill requires grocers to list the country of origin of all beef, pork, poultry and lamb sold. If the store doesn't know where the meat came from, it must be labeled "country of origin unknown.'' The bill also allows Montana-grown meat to be labeled "made in Montana'' instead of "product of the U.S.A.''
Gov. Brian Schweitzer supported the bill early on and has already pledged to sign it.
"Now it looks like we're going to get Montana-grown and American meat on our shelves,'' said Hal Harper, the governor's chief policy adviser.
Congress passed a federal country-of-origin law in 2002. That law was to have gone into effect last September. But since then, Congress voted to delay the program until 2006. A competing federal bill also is pending that would make country-of-origin labeling voluntary.
Montana's country-of-origin bill contains two caveats intended to blend into any federal labeling requirements that may come down the pike. First, Montana grocers would not be required to begin labeling until October 2006, the month after federal regulations are tentatively expected to go into effect.
The bill also stipulates that if Congress produces federal rules, the Montana program will be void.
The Montana Retail Association opposed the bill. It argued that most of the meat sold in Montana grocery stores comes to the state from large, national packing plants. Because those plants aren't required to know where every cow they slaughter comes from, it will be impossible for most stores in the state to know where their meat originated, resulting in a lot of "country of origin unknown'' signs.
But supporters, like Patty Agnew, a rancher and small-business owner in Big Timber, said the fact that large packing plants don't know what country their cows come from is one of the problems labeling laws are trying to fix.
"I don't think people have a clue that our livestock industry is being sent overseas just like everything else,'' she said. "People see 'USDA approved' and they automatically assume it's American beef. When they see the placarding they can say, 'If this is Montana beef, what's this other stuff we've been buying?' "
Nothing is more important than the food we eat and consumers have a right to know where it comes from, she said.
Agnew also said the bill sends a message to the federal government that Montanans support the idea of federal labeling laws for meat.
Earlier this month, federal rules kicked in that require stores to label the origin of all seafood.
When Schweitzer signs the bill, Montana will join a handful of other, mostly cattle-producing, states that already have labeling laws for meat. The state of Florida requires the country of origin of citrus fruits to be posted.