Ranchers divided over how to label their products on grocery store shelves packed a small room in the state Capitol on Tuesday to weigh in on a debate about country-of-origin labeling.
State Sen. Albert Olszewski, a Republican from the Flathead, is carrying a bill that would have grocery stores put up one of three signs to accompany beef and poultry for sale in Montana stores.
Placards would indicate if products were born, raised and processed in the U.S., processed in the U.S, or processed outside the U.S.
Congress repealed country-of-origin labeling, or COOL, requirement on beef and pork in 2015 after pressure from the World Trade Organization.
Jim Baker, president of the Montana Cattlemen Association, told the Senate Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation committee the bill was important for cattle ranchers and consumers who want to know where what they're buying comes from.
Others who spoke in support of the bill said cattle prices dropped after 2015.
John Wagner, who said his family has been ranching in Montana for 122 years, said it should be simple for grocery stores to label where products come from.
"You want stuff from Montana, you should be able to buy Montana beef," Wagner said.
Brad Griffin, president of the Montana Retail Association, said the bill presented problems for grocery stores who can't reliably track if the meat they purchase is from Montana or the U.S.
"This needs to be a federal solution. It is far too complicated for one state to solve. It isn't a problem that can be solved at the end of the line by retailers," Griffin said.
Bonita Cremer, who has a cow-calf operation near Melville, also opposed the bill, saying it's "extremely unfair to expect the retailer to verify information they have no way of verifying."
Cremer said once cows leave her ranch for a feed lot and then slaughter house, the chain of tracking is broken. And if meat produced in Montana ends up labeled as otherwise, it could sell for less money and end up hurting her bottom line, Cremer said.
"I have no control over that as a producer of that calf," Cremer said.
The Montana Stockgrowers Association also opposed the bill. Jay Bogner with the association said while he agreed both sides shared the goal of increasing beef sales, he didn't think this bill would accomplish it.
The bill also has a legal note attached raising concerns it could have constitutional issues because of conflicts at the federal level.
The bill also contains language defining cell-cultured meat. A related bill would clarify meat products produced from a cultured cell can’t be labeled the same way steaks, burger and other items that come from livestock and poultry are labeled.
Several national companies are producing lab-grown meat, which is made from the cultured stem cells of animals, though it has not reached the market.