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As Foreign Markets Grow, American Ranchers Beef About How To Stay Competitive

Maggie Mullen
Mike Eisley at King Ranch outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming.

When it comes to beef, Made in America doesn't necessarily mean it was made here. That's because if the cow was raised in another country it can be labeled with a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sticker as long as it was processed here. That has American ranchers in a beef with each other over what to do about it.

Mark Eisley is the owner and operator at King Ranch, just a few miles outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Beef rules his world. Or more specifically, the price of beef. That number has been all over the place in the last few years. And cattle ranchers are divided about how their cows can command higher prices.

"It's a very emotional issue," said Eisley. "And maybe just a general misunderstanding of the market."

Eisley said ranchers get emotional because it's their livelihood. The rising and falling of beef prices has been hard on them. For him, the solution is looking for opportunity outside of the U.S.

"We are in an export market, we need to sell our beef overseas," he said. Overseas is almost always Asia. Increasing urbanization and a growing middle class in countries like China and Japan have fueled a demand for beef. Right now, Australian and Brazilian beef are dominating those markets. But Eisley said American cattlemen have a chance to take over.

"Those guys want quality," he explained. "They want a great tasting product. They're willing to pay a little more for it, especially as they emerge and become more economically viable."

But growing that overseas market isn't enough according to Bill Bullard. He heads up the Ranchers and Cattlemen Action Legal Fund USA.

"If we could distinguish our product, we could promote and advertise our product as being produced under the highest health and safety standards in the world," he said.

And the way to do that, he said, is to have mandatory country of origin labeling on all beef.

Credit Maggie Mullen
Alan Johnson is owner and operator of The Butcher Block in Laramie, Wyoming.

"Otherwise it sits side by side with imported meat that may not be as tasty," said Bullard. "And if consumers have a bad experience eating the beef and they would presume that it must be domestic product because it bears a USDA inspection sticker, then that lessens the demand for beef, totally."

Country of origin labelling isn't a new idea in the meat industry. The federal government required it for beef from 2009 to 2015. But Congress outlawed it to comply with global trade rules. Then President Trump was elected.

"Well, we were actually elated when he came out with his executive order, urging the buy American hire American program," Bullard said. He thought that meant the Trump administration would reverse the decision. But that's not happened. That might be because of the way consumers behave.

Take The Butcher Block in Laramie, Wyoming. The butcher shop is owned and operated by Alan Johnson. When asked what his impression was when people see a label that says "Made In the U.S.", Johnson said, "I actually haven't had anyone ask that specifically, or look for that specifically."

Instead, Johnson said he mostly gets questions about hormones or steroids. That tracks with what Chris Bastian has concluded. He's a professor of agricultural and applied economics at the University of Wyoming.

"As long as consumers feel like their product is safe, they don't care where they get it from," said Bastian.

He's referring to a USDA study back in 2015 on the effectiveness of country of origin labelling.

"When the label just says certified U.S. product, what does it really convey to the consumer?" he said

For instance, do they attach a sense of pride when buying U.S. products? Or view it as being safer, or of higher quality?

"And then they have to act on that," said Bastian. But he added that the U.S. Department of Agriculture study found that the labelling didn't change consumer behavior. In fact, it concluded labelling did more harm than good. Overall, the extra red tape and record keeping was estimated to cost ranchers, producers, retailers and consumers over eight billion dollars over ten years. Still, supporters like Bill Bullard aren't giving up.

"Country of origin labelling is the essential element to allow our U.S. farmers and ranchers to compete against the growing volume of imported products that the meat packers are bringing into this country," he said.

And Bullard has at least one political leader in his camp. Montana Senator Jon Tester plans to reintroduce the idea in a Senate resolution this summer.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado. 

Maggie Mullen is Wyoming Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. Her work has aired on NPR, Marketplace, Science Friday, and Here and Now. She was awarded a 2019 regional Edward R. Murrow Award for her story on the Black 14.
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