Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for holding this hearing on "country of origin" labeling. I am Wes Sims, and I farm in Sweetwater, Texas, where I raise wheat, cotton, hay and cattle. I also serve as president of the Texas Farmers Union and board director for the National Farmers Union. Today I am testifying on behalf of the 300,000 farm and ranch families that are members of the National Farmers Union.
Our organization is a strong proponent of mandatory "country of origin" labeling, as provided for in HR 1144, introduced by Rep. Chenoweth-Hage and Rep. Pomeroy. We are particularly pleased that the legislation covers beef, pork and lamb. We also support the provision that requires U.S.-labeled meat to be from animals that are born and raised in the United States. We also like the fact that the bill requires all meat to be labeled, rather than just labeling U.S. meat.
As a cow-calf producer, I am proud to have products from my farm labeled "product of the United States." Labels are used on many other consumer items, including frozen food, and labeling fresh meat seems long overdue.
In the absence of "country of origin" labeling, the current system is misleading to the consumer. Due to grade stamping, each meat product receives a label that reads "USDA inspected." This gives the appearance that all the meat is produced in the United States. National Farmers Union is pleased that USDA is reviewing this practice. We believe that only U.S. meat should receive the USDA grade stamp. However, action to remove the grade stamp from foreign meat is not enough to tell consumers where the meat was produced--only the "country of origin" label will do that.
Some have suggested that the United States should try voluntary labeling. I would point out that we already have the authority to do that and it has not resulted in meat being labeled.
During the past eight months, National Farmers Union met with retailers, processors and some other producer groups to further discuss use of a voluntary label. However, the effort produced a suggestion for a label that would allow beef from imported cattle to be labeled "product of the United States." Specifically, the label would have required the cattle to be in the United States for only 100 days prior to slaughter. That time period is a small fraction of the animal's life and would result in a false label--one that would certainly not meet the standards for other products labeled "product of the United States."
The past three years have been tough on Texas cattle producers. In my area we have had three years of minimal rainfall, with 1998 at 25 percent of the normal level, and 1999 and 2000 at only 50 percent of the normal rainfall. As a result, like many other farms in my area, my cattle numbers are below normal, and I am forced to use supplemental feeding. I raise all my own calves. In years with better weather, I occasionally buy stocker cattle from other states, including Tennessee, Mississippi or Florida. I have never purchased imported cattle.
I am aware of some large operations that import thousands of cattle from other countries and then lease wheat pasture in the winter to feed those cattle. I am also aware of large operators who buy foreign cattle and ship them directly to the feedlot where they are finished for 100 days or more and then slaughtered. These operations directly compete with U.S. cow-calf operators and there is no reason that beef from these cattle should be falsely labeled "U.S. beef." In fact, in addition to misleading the consumer, we risk a loss of consumer confidence in labeling, and the false label could actually encourage more cattle imports.
Livestock producers today are forced to sell into a market with very little competition. Four firms control 81 percent of all beef slaughter, 73 percent of sheep slaughter, and 57 percent of pork slaughter. In some cases, processors "source" the animals from another country. Decreased competition and the practice of sourcing animals from foreign countries have resulted in little or no profit being returned to U.S. livestock producers. Adopting the false label would reward processors for import sourcing.
While the effort on voluntary labeling was a good try, it falls short on the 100 days and on the fact that it covers only beef.
Two years ago, members of Congress came very close to adopting mandatory country of origin labeling. The effort was killed by some in the processing industry. Since that time, producers have continued to suffer from prices too low to cover their cost of production. In addition, consumers have an increased awareness of food safety concerns, which has led to greater interest in where the food originated. At a time when U.S. producers and processors are under rigorous production requirements and consumers are expressing an increased interest in the origin of food, it is more important that ever that Congress adopts country of origin labeling.
The provision of H.R. 114 are good producer policy, good consumer policy and good trade policy. Many other countries already require "country of origin" labeling for U.S. produced meat. This bill treats all countries the same and it avoids creating a loophole for ground meat. It informs the end consumer and has strong support from farmers and ranchers across the country. As a beef producer and president of the Texas Farmers Union, there is no legislation I know of that would provide a bigger boost to U.S. livestock producers.
On behalf of our members, I commend Rep. Chenoweth-Hage and her 34 co-sponsors for introducing this legislation and I offer the full support of the National Farmers Union. Mr. Chairman, I urge you and the committee to support this bill and bring it to a vote before the full Congress. Once again, thank you for holding this hearing and offering me the opportunity to testify in support of this key legislation.
|Texas Farmers Union, P.O. Box 738, Sweetwater, Tx 79556|