GREELEY — Beef sold at supermarkets may soon wear its citizenship on its sleeve.
Federal law requires a myriad of foods start donning country-of-origin labels beginning in September 2004. But a debate rages on: Packers argue the practice will cost too much, ranchers want a program they think will boost American beef sales and consumer advocates warn labeling isn’t the safety assurance that some shoppers think it is.
In July, the House of Representatives voted to remove funding for labeling, which would make the law toothless. The Senate is expected to vote on funding this fall.
Ann and Joseph Strovas, picking up ground beef at a Greeley grocer recently, said a label would give them the one piece of information they require.
“We’re Americans,” Ann Strovas said. “We buy what’s American.”
Packers, like Greeley-based Swift and Co., oppose mandatory labeling. They argue the cost of tracking cattle and overhauling the slaughterhouse to separate cattle by origin is too much. Swift, the nation’s third-largest meat packer, has estimated the program could cost $25-$35 per animal.
The company said there are too many unknowns to predict what the price jump at grocery stores may be.
“When you’re one of the larger producers and you’re drawing from in and out of the country, it’s not a no-cost program,” said Dennis Henley, president of Swift and Co.
Henley thinks country-of-origin requirements will be adjusted before the law goes into effect next year. Officials at Colorado agriculture organizations said they’ve been assured the Senate will fight to uphold funding when it votes this fall. Sen. Wayne Allard opposes country-of-origin labeling and Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell supports the practice; both are Republicans.
While Swift opposes country-of-origin labeling, it favors a system to track cattle from birth to the shelf. With this program, if there is an E. coli outbreak, a packer could trace infected cattle to a supplier — and stop buying from that supplier.
Traceability is more in line with consumer demands that packers have a paper trail to follow to the source of an outbreak.
Wendy Umberger, an agriculture professor at Colorado State University, studies consumer opinions on labeling. She has found that consumers would be willing to pay up to 19 percent more for beef labeled American, but that their underlying assumption is the label is associated with safety.
Consumers just want to know they can stop a food-safety outbreak, Umberger said. “And the packers can’t do that right now.”
Henley estimated about 15 percent of the cattle slaughtered in the Greeley plant are from Canada or Mexico. Eliminating those cattle is not a realistic business decision, he said.
But small-operation ranchers favor labeling and hope consumers, given a choice, will buy American and pay a higher price for it.
Roy Wardell has 160 cattle east of Platteville and sells about 40 steers a year to Swift. Wardell favors labeling because he thinks consumers, like him, trust the safety standards for American food. He envisions labeling eventually could evolve to tracking individual cattle.
“I wouldn’t put out the idea that because we do that we’re going to make more money,” he said. “But I think it’s something that’s going to be necessary to do. Diseases with animals are more of a global problem, and we’re going to have to use technology to keep our business viable.”
Many feedlot owners, who run larger numbers of cattle, are siding with Swift.
Ken Ulrich feeds 10,000 cattle at Ulrich Farms in Platteville, and another 15,000 in Ault and Nebraska. Ulrich sells about 95 percent of his cattle to Swift and Co.’s Greeley slaughterhouse. He’s not even sure what percent of his cattle — which he buys as 400-pound calves and 800-pound yearlings — are from outside the United States.
Retailers such as Safeway already have sent notice to suppliers such as Swift and Co. that a fine for incorrect labeling would be passed along to Swift. In turn, Swift has notified producers such as Ulrich that the $10,000 fine would be passed along to them. In the worst-case scenario, incorrectly labeled beef could be subject to a recall.
Ulrich said soon he won’t be able to afford to feed undocumented cattle.
“I’m concerned that we’re going to put a skull and crossbones on meat from Mexico and Canada,” he said. Ulrich counts himself among those in favor of a traceability program.
“I think the industry eventually needs to go to that,” he said. “Where we can trace a cattle back to the original ranch it was born on, and I think that’s where the industry would like to go on our own.”