Ranchers say it's more important than ever for their products to be labeled to bolster consumer confidence. Meatpackers, however, want a two-year delay in the law's implementation, contending it will require an expensive tracking system and may limit free trade without making meat any safer.
Right now, consumers don't know the history of beef products in the grocery store freezer; beef produced in the United States can get a U.S. Department of Agriculture label regardless of where the animal that yielded it was born.
The labeling law would require that beef, along with other perishable commodities like fruits and vegetables, fish, lamb and pork — but not chicken — be labeled with their country of origin.
Only products both raised and processed in the United States would get an American label. The exact wording of the label would be left to the industry.
The delay backed by meatpackers, until September 2006, could be accomplished by language in a federal spending bill approved by the House and awaiting a Senate vote later this month. The delay was written into the bill before the Washington state cow was found to have the disease.
The proposed delay has drawn protests from Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and other Democrats who say consumers need the information now more than ever.
Ranchers believe beef labels would have helped maintain consumer confidence in their products during the mad cow scare because consumers could have passed over Canadian beef for American beef. The cow found to have the disease last month was imported from Canada.
"Consumers could choose to add an extra layer of protection by choosing to buy an exclusively American beef product," said Bill Bullard, chief executive director of R-CALF United Stockgrowers of America.
The discovery of the nation's first case of mad cow was announced Dec. 23 but it took another four days for officials to determine that the cow came from Canada. By then, some key U.S. trading partners had closed their borders to U.S. beef.
Bullard thinks labeling could have prevented at least some bans. With the confirmation that the cow was Canadian, Bullard expects the World Organization For Animal Health to allow the United States to retain its mad cow-free status, leading other nations to lift bans.
R-CALF, of Billings, Mont., bills itself as a grass roots group representing only ranchers and owners of feedlots — where cattle are fattened up before being sold to packers.
The group says the nation's big meatpackers don't want to list country of origin on beef products because they have come to rely on cheap imports. It also contends the practice blurs the line about what is American.
"This new model of industrial agriculture has cost us a tremendous amount, not just economically, but in respect and credibility with the public," said rancher Kathleen Kelley, an R-CALF member from Meeker in northwestern Colorado.
Pueblo feedlot operator Tom Spencer said consumers should know where the beef they buy comes from, just as they do with clothes or cars.
The Denver-based National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which represents meatpackers, ranchers and feedlots, supports the delay on labeling.
Bryan Dierlam, association legislative affairs director, said there is no proof that the burden of tracking the origin of beef will pay off with higher sales. His group favors voluntary labeling.
He also said the labels alone won't guarantee beef is safe.
Mark Klein, spokesman for Kansas-based Excel Corp., the nation's second-largest meatpacker, said labeling is an attempt to make it prohibitively expensive for packers to import beef.
He points out that most imported beef ends up in restaurants and would not be covered by labeling rules.
"We continue to view country-of-origin labeling as being nothing more than an artificial trade barrier," he said.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest supports the law because the tracking system would allow consumers to make informed decisions, spokeswoman Caroline Smith DeWaal said.
"I don't see it as a substitute for safety regulations. I do see it as an additional safety feature to be able to trace back where a product came from," she said.
The mad cow scare hit ranchers just as they were starting to emerge from difficult years brought on by low cattle prices and drought. Cattle prices had risen in part because of the U.S. ban on imports of live cattle from Canada, which reported its first case of the brain-wasting disease in May.