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  • AG COMMITTEE HEARS TESTIMONY VOTES DOWN COUNTRY OF ORIGIN BILL - Rep Becker says, “This puts us in a terrible position."

AG COMMITTEE HEARS TESTIMONY VOTES DOWN COUNTRY OF ORIGIN BILL - Rep Becker says, “This puts us in a terrible position."

The debate over Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) is an international issue that has been argued everywhere from the World Trade Organization to NAFTA negotiations to the floor of the United States Congress.  Four times the WTO has ruled against the United States, disallowing the practice of Country of Origin Labeling on American beef.  It was only after the fourth and final ruling that the U.S. Congress voted in 2015 to lift the COOL requirement, thus ending a two year period that COOL had been in place.  

Photo by Jody Johnson BuckNothing has changed on the international scene.  Yet, the debate was revived once again in a bill co-sponsored by Kimmi Lewis, a Republican member of the Colorado House of Representatives, representing District 64, and Vicki Marble, a Republican member of the Colorado Senate, representing District 23.  

If passed, HB 18-1403, also known as the Beef Country of Origin Recognition System (COORS) or the Beef COORS bill, would have amended the Colorado Food and Drug Act to require retailers to indicate, through a placard placed on the meat case, the country of origin of the beef sold to the public. The bill would have only applied to retailers who sell beef that has not been manufactured, cured, smoked, cooked or processed with the CDPHE authorized to promulgate the rules of the bill.

One of the major supporters of the bill was R-CALF, USA which placed a January 8, 2018 related article  on its website.  In that article, Lewis was quoted as saying the bill “corrects the federal government’s deceptive labeling scheme” by requiring a placard to identify “beef exclusively derived from animals that were born, raised, and slaughtered in the United States.”  In that same article, Lewis goes on to infer that food safety is an issue, stating, “The public will finally be able to distinguish between beef produced exclusively under the United States’ production and food safety standards versus beef produced in countries with different production standards and food safety systems that are not identical to ours.”  

In addition, Lewis posted a 2 minute video on social media where she appeared alongside R-CALF CEO Bill Bullard of Montana to address the “myths being sent around by the Colorado Farm Bureau” about the bill.  According to Lewis, the Colorado Farm Bureau claimed the bill would limit choice for consumers and decrease demand.  

A hearing on the bill was held Monday by the Colorado House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee where passage was required before being sent to the floor for a full debate.  By the time the hearing ended, more than 60 people had testified.

Representative Lewis was first to present her testimony, stating that the bill impacted grocery stores only  and not restaurants or other retailers. She then touched on a number of issues, accusing four multi-national packers of deceiving consumers by stating beef was USA beef when it was not. She further stated that, during the 2013 to 2015 period when COOL was in place, beef prices reached record highs; after COOL was repealed, cattle prices dropped significantly.  She inferred that lack of Origin of Country labeling combined with the excessive import of foreign beef, a move she described as a manipulation of the multi-national packers who control the lion’s share of the industry, was related to the sobering decline in the number of ranches in recent years. She further stated that the cost of the bill would be limited to the cost of producing the placard the bill require to be placed.  In summary, she stated that “the substantial benefits of HB 18-1043 greatly outweigh the minimal cost”, reminding committee members that Colorado was a sovereign state, and states’ rights should prevail.

At that point, the hearing was opened to testimony on both sides of the issue given both in person and in remote locations around the state by dozens of witnesses, some representing themselves and others representing agricultural organizations.  

There is no doubt of the clear division in the agriculture industry over the bill.
 
Proponents emphasized the transparency that COORS would provide and the importance that transparency holds with consumers.  There was insistence that the market is there for Colorado beef and that COORS is consumer driven. There was also great discussion on the need to differentiate foreign beef from US beef because of safety concerns in relation to those countries whose practices and regulations may be “different” from— thus implying inferior to—those in the United States.  Bill Bullard with RCALF summarized support by saying that HB 18-1043 would give Colorado ranchers a “home court advantage”, possibly inspiring young men and women to go into ranching as a business.

As opponents of the bill—many of whom were multi-generational cattlemen and cattlewomen—gave their testimonies, it became quickly apparent that they agree with many of the tenets put forth by the bill’s proponents. As a whole, they agree that, more and more, consumers want to know where and how their food is raised, and transparency is one way to achieve that.  They agree—proudly so—that US beef is superior in both quality and safety practices to beef imported from many other countries. However, their objections to the bill went into areas that were, in large part, not clearly addressed by HB 18-1403 advocates.  

Some individuals rejected the notion that differentiation of their beef from foreign beef should be mandated and handled by the federal government, stating that they had already gone to great expense to do that themselves and issuing a mandate would “water down” the effects of the efforts they had already invested.  Others were not willing to disregard the impact such a move might have on trading partners like Mexico and Canada, citing the possibility—echoed by the USDA—that those two countries may take retaliatory steps should COOL (or, in this case, COORS) be re-implemented in violation of the ruling from the WTO.  Other producers expressed concerns over potential liabilities, stating it was almost inevitable that litigations would ensue at great cost. Others commented that differentiation of US beef from foreign beef is already occurring on a voluntary basis and should be left as such.  However, as a whole, significant concern was voiced over the impact this bill would have on small grocery stores who are already struggling and would bear the brunt of legal difficulties should problems arise.

After nearly 6 hours, testimony was concluded. Representative Lewis introduced two amendments, neither of which had significant impact on the intention of the bill, and the committee prepared to vote.  Given a last chance to make a plea for her bill, Lewis urged the committee to let the bill go to the floor where it could be debated and other legislators could be made aware of the “scam” being played on the people of Colorado.

Representative Becker asked to make a point before the vote was taken, prefacing his comment by saying he’d gotten more messages, phone calls and texts on this bill than any he could remember in recent times. He further acknowledged the importance of the bill, the enormous amount of work that went into its introduction and how the cattle industry in Colorado deserves to be “lifted up”.

He then went on to state, “This bill pits neighbor against neighbor in the ag business, and we just don’t do that. There are many good things in this bill. There are.  But…allowing CDPHE to make rules that would impact small grocers who are already suffering…and after I’ve fought so hard for those small grocers in my district…” He went on to add, “This puts us in a terrible position. A terrible position. I don’t want to vote on this bill. But, of course, I have to.”  

The vote was then taken.  The results were 10 against and 3 for.  HB 18-1403 was not recommended to go to the floor for full debate.

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