COOL, USDA suit hot topics in Polson

Representatives of Montana’s meat industry—from processors to regulators—met for the annual gathering of the Montana Meat Processors Association (MMPA) at the Kwa TaqNuk Resort in Polson last weekend, using the opportunity to take a slaughterhouse tour, indulge in shooting sports, eat plenty of tasty cured meats and enter a “sharpest knife contest.” Meanwhile, sponsors hawked pressure washers, meat scales and cleavers, and a curious “pizza snack stick” that, despite its name, consisted mostly of beef.

The gathered meat processors did have serious matters to discuss. Topping the list were the potential impacts of Montana’s recently adjourned legislative session, which passed a statewide Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) program—an initiative on which the federal government has been dragging its feet.

HB 406 will require COOL labeling for all Montana beef by Oct. 1, 2006, said Montana Meat and Poultry Inspection Bureau Chief Carol Olmstead. A federal COOL law is slated to go into effect at that time as well, but could be delayed, as it has in the past.

Though the passage of COOL has generally been considered a victory for consumers who want to know where their beef comes from and for Montana stock growers, who hope to create a niche market for Montana-branded beef, processors are quick to point out that COOL will be a burden for them.

“We’re all wondering how it’s going to affect us,” said Jeff Bennett, MMPA president and manager of Vandervanter Meats in Columbia Falls, best known for its Montana Jerky Company products. “None of the processors wanted it,” Bennett explained, in part because processors are notoriously opposed to additional paperwork.

“The stockgrowers pushed it through,” Bennett said. “It helps them sell ‘Montana beef,’ but it puts a stress on us manufacturers,” due to additional tracking and documentation requirements.

Montana’s COOL legislation may still face legal hurdles from the federal government, however, according to both Olmstead and Bennett.

“The feds are basically saying, ‘Hey, [country of origin labeling] is our thing,’” but Montana passed its law first, according to Bennett.

Under the law, which will be enforced by the Montana Department of Labor’s Weights and Measures bureau, meat sellers will be required to post placards notifying customers of their meat’s origins, Olmstead said.

But she expressed concern that if the federal law stalls again, retailers in Montana won’t be able to force meat plants outside the state to comply with COOL rules, leaving retailers to advertise “Montana beef” on one side of the aisle and “Origin Unknown” on the other, which Olmstead said could cause consumer confusion.

John Munsell, owner of Montana Quality Foods, a meat processing business in Miles City, raised another concern about the new COOL law.

“If I had my druthers,” Munsell said, “American consumers would demand American beef or Montana meat, and would be willing to pay a premium price for it. If a lot of people really wanted it, that would be a win-win for consumers and processors.” But Munsell said he believes most Americans won’t be willing to pay the surcharge that processors will be forced to pass along to consumers.

“I’m convinced that most Americans would rather buy cheaper, imported T-bones. I almost never have consumers ask me, ‘Is this Montana meat?’ They’d like to buy American, but not if it’s more expensive.”

Bennett agreed: “Most people don’t really seem to care where their beef comes from.”

Another hot topic at the Polson convention was Munsell’s lawsuit against the USDA, stemming from federal inspection procedures at Munsell’s plant (see “Fighting big beef,” Nov. 4, 2004).

“Everybody’s been anticipating this,” said a moderator, before introducing Munsell, who provided an update on his case, which seeks to force the USDA to conduct thorough tracebacks when it finds contaminated meat. Munsell claimed that E.coli-contaminated meat discovered at his plant in 2002 had actually come from a Con Agra plant. USDA field inspectors provided documentation to support Munsell’s claims, but were told by USDA headquarters that inspectors weren’t authorized to make such judgments, according to the suit. Instead of tracking the contamination’s origins, the USDA made Munsell re-write his Hazard Analysis Critical Control Plan 14 times and suspended his right to grind his own beef products for four months. But, as Munsell had argued, the contamination did indeed come from the Con Agra plant, and the result was a 19 million-pound recall of meat from that source plant. Munsell hopes to protect small and medium-sized plants nationwide (some 1,700 of which are represented by the American Association of Meat Processors, or AAMP) that Munsell says are unfairly blamed for the problems of the larger corporate meat packers. USDA Consumer Safety Officer Russell Clark, who also attended the conference, declined to be interviewed for this story.

AAMP, of which the Montana association is a member, joined Munsell in the suit in March. Aside from making it clear that the issue transcends just one small plant in Montana, AAMP’s inclusion in the suit is an important showing of solidarity, according to Tom Devine, executive director of the Government Accountability Project, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit public interest group representing Munsell. Devine assured MMPA members that “armed with the slingshot of truth, David beats Goliath.”

Added Devine: “We’re going to fight and we’re going to win, because in a free society, nothing is more powerful than the truth.”

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