MT Family Farms

When you go to the grocery store and pick up some meat for dinner how often do you really look at the label? If you take a close look you may notice a label that states the country of origin, which tells you exactly where your beef was made....or does it? For this week’s Montana Family Farm series, we take a closer look at that label and how it could be fooling you.

"Consumers are concerned about where their food comes from, the quality of their food," says Walter Schweitzer, President of the Montana Farmers Union.

Shopper Shana Baxter tell us what she looks for.

"’Made in the USA’ is what I search for in the meat department. I trust it more."

Baxter works in a food processing area and knows the U.S.D.A.’s rules and regulations pretty well.

"I bypass the ones that aren’t made in the USA. I like to keep it inter-country. Not to say other countries are bad but just, I trust it more with what's going on, they have more regulations."

From a proud Montana rancher's standpoint, honesty is the best policy.

Walter Schweitzer has been raising cattle whole life and says he's got nothing to hide about his beef – and that simple 'Made in the USA’  sticker may be a bit misleading.

"I don't think that most consumers especially now like the idea of buying their food from a foreign country.  In fact, most want to buy it from their neighbor and that's why the farmers markets are expanding and food to table is expanding and it's weird how we killed, Congress killed, country of origin labeling in 2015 for beef and pork. So right now you don't know where your beef comes from. You can go to the grocery store and it'll have labels on there that says it's a product of USA but really that beef could have come from Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Mexico," said Schweitzer.

 He adds Congress adjusted beef and pork labeling to potentially include meat raised outside of the United States.

"When they killed country of origin labeling it allowed this little loophole because this ‘Product of USA’ label was created for food that was processed here. They'll slaughter their beef in Brazil, and they'll take the scraps and put them in a box, send them here to the United States, and we'll mix them in with our hamburger and put 'product of USA" on it. We just think it's fair that the consumer should know.”

But not everyone agrees. According to Brad Griffin, President of the Montana Retail Association, "If we don't know what the country of origin is, the legislation required us to put a placard that says ‘Country of origin Unknown.’ And I don't think that's reassuring to the public or all that informative to the public."

Griffin says the 'Country of Origin Unknown' label can call into question the integrity or quality of the product. He adds farmers and ranchers should explore more ways of reliable tracking by coming up with a way to keep track their animals from start to finish through collaboration with the packers.

"The proponents, they're rightfully very proud of their beef products that they raise on their ranch in Montana and they want to be able to celebrate that this is a Montana product. So it's not really County of Origin that they're seeking, it's more State of origin," said Griffin.

According to Senator Jon Tester, "Consumers want to buy those American-made products, and country of origin labeling lets producers show their product was raised right here in America-and ensures folks can make informed choices about the food they buy.”

Meanwhile, Baxter says she'd be upset to know the meat she's buying could possibly have been raised outside of the U.S.

"I'd be p***** because I mean like because it would be misleading, very misleading because it technically isn't a product of the USA obviously. People should know where they're getting their products from."

Walt says consumers need to be teammates in the battle against those big corporations, because at the end of the day, “It's really about the consumers. That's what drives my day is feeding people. And our consumers want to know where their food comes from. They could be our best ally.”  

Montana Family Farms is sponsored by the Montana Farmers Union. Each story focuses on Walter Schweitzer’s life on the farm and a bigger impact on the industry across the Treasure State and beyond.