Country of origin bills having mixed success

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Montana lawmakers voted last week to table one bill and advance another dealing with country of origin labeling for agricultural products.

House Bill 594, which would require beef and pork sold in Montana to be labeled with the country from which they come, was tabled in committee. Senate Resolution 16, which passed the Senate 46-4 and now moves to the House, would urge the federal government to recognize the importance of country-of-origin labeling laws.

Rep. Bradley Hamlett, D-Cascade, carried HB 594. He says it’s modeled after federal country-of-origin labeling laws, which have been changed in recent years. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, cuts of beef and pork muscle were removed in 2015 from the list of products that are regulated by the labeling laws, meaning retailers are not required to provide information on the origin of beef or pork that they sell.

Hamlett says that change makes country-of-origin labeling a state’s rights issue.

“If you want to send a message to what I would call our dysfunctional Congress back east, you pass this bill,” Hamlett said.

The Montana Farmers Union supports the legislation. Secretary and treasurer of the group, Erik Somerfeld, spoke in the bill’s hearing.

“Consumers overwhelmingly want to know where their food comes from. Ranchers want the consumer to know where their food comes from,” Somerfeld said.

The Montana Retail Association opposed the bill. President of the group, Brad Griffin told the committee he represents grocery stores across the state that would be responsible for the labeling. He says federal legislation should come before state legislation.

“This is far too complicated for Montana to solve on its own,” Griffin said.

Representatives from the Montana Farm Bureau Federation and the Montana Stockgrowers Association also opposed the bill, saying the proposed legislation would be burdensome for businesses and that this debate should be had at the federal level first.

Because the bill was tabled it won’t move forward unless 58 representatives vote to “blast” it to the House floor.

Sen. Al Olszewski, R-Kalispell, is carrying the Senate resolution, and said he was told by Montana’s U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte that passing this language would help pass federal legislation on the issue.

Olszewski had a similar bill to Hamlett’s, Senate Bill 206, that was also tabled in committee.

Shaylee Ragar is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Newspaper Association, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation. She can be reached at shaylee.ragar@umontana.edu. 

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