Near the end of March, Ryan Brokaw sat at his kitchen table curious about how lucky the family ranch had been in selling its calves in February.

He was shocked.

“I would have lost $65,000 on three loads of calves,” said Brokaw, a third-generation rancher near Forbes, N.D. “It hadn’t even been a month. (The prices) went down that far. Our family was lucky.”

As boxed beef prices shot upward and live cattle prices dropped during the pandemic this spring, ranchers again found themselves on the short end of the stick. Ryan’s wife, Marcie, grew up on a ranch 18 miles west of their home, where her father still runs the operation. Ryan said her father tends to sell a little bit later.

“My father-in-law didn’t sell any cattle,” Ryan said. “He feeds a little bit longer than I do. These are just guys doing their program and feeding into March and April. Can you imagine the hit those guys took and the stress they had? You can’t withstand many years of that.”

While the Justice Department is looking into market manipulation among the beef packers – four companies own 85 percent of the market – Brokaw is focusing his efforts on truth-in-labeling, particularly Country- of-Origin-Labeling (COOL), as a way to help ranchers get a premium price for their product and make up for lost revenue.

What is COOL?

Country-of-Origin-Labeling was signed into law in May 2002 as part of the farm bill but faced long delays in implementation until its final rule took effect in March of 2009.

COOL is a consumer labeling law that requires products be labeled with their country of origin. The rule was in place for several commodities, but Canada and Mexico filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization in October of 2009, arguing the rules for beef and pork meant less favorable treatment for imported livestock, than those born and raised domestically. The complaint argued COOL was inconsistent with international trade obligations.

In November 2011, the WTO’s dispute settlement body essentially ruled in Canada and Mexico’s favor, though the U.S. also claimed victory in part of the ruling. The U.S. appealed the decisions that went in the opposition’s favor four months later. In July 2012, the WTO appellate body issued its report, affirming the dispute settlement body’s ruling.

The WTO gave the U.S. until May 2013 to implement its recommendations and rulings. In response, the U.S. made changes to its law to identify the country in which each production step occurred.

In July 2013, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Pork Producers Council, the North American Meat Association (now the North American Meat Institute) as well as commodity groups from Mexico and Canada filed a lawsuit, alleging COOL was unconstitutional. National Farmers Union intervened in the lawsuit in favor of COOL, and North Dakota Farmers Union donated $40,000 to help defend the law.

In early 2014, Canada and Mexico asked the WTO compliance panel for a more lucid review, also asking for permission to levy $3 billion in retaliatory tariffs against the U.S. The panel ruled that the changes made to the COOL law by the U.S. were inadequate, which was later affirmed by the appellate body.

In June 2015, the House of Representatives passed a bill (H.R. 2393) to repeal mandatory COOL for beef and pork. Six months later, the WTO authorized Canada and Mexico to institute retaliatory tariffs. Just 11 days after the WTO’s ruling, H.R. 2393 was incorporated into omnibus appropriations legislation, effectively repealing COOL.

The rule still stands for many other products including fruits, vegetables, fish and poultry.

Label problems

The Brokaws have a joint operation of 750 cow-calf pairs with Ryan’s brother Dylan and his wife Ava. Ryan and Marcie have two sons, Trent and Avery. The family is significantly invested in the future of ranching.

“We are a true family ranch – we have zero hired hands,” he said. “It’s the Brokaw family that runs this place.”

Ryan and Marcie have tackled the need for COOL together, writing letters to the editor as well as a letter to North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring. Ryan has made multiple calls to his congressional delegation’s offices.

“He doesn’t even call Bismarck anymore – he calls right out to (Washington, D.C.),” Marcie said.

Like many ranchers, Ryan has serious problems with the current “Product of USA” label that goes on meat. Currently, the label’s guidelines say the product, such as hamburger, must undergo “substantial transformation.” But that means cattle raised and finished in another country are shipped to the U.S., processed, inspected by the USDA and then labeled American. The minimum requirement for the label is that it has to be packaged in a USDA-inspected facility.

“My biggest problem is that we’re tricking the consumer,” he said. “We’re putting the ‘Product of USA’ label on stuff being shipped in from 23 different countries. All the packers have to do is bring it in and re-pack it, and they can stamp ‘Product of USA’ on it.

“Everything is labeled except beef and pork. (NDFU District 6 Director) Shelly Ziesch made a pretty wise statement. If the ‘Product of USA’ label didn’t mean anything, why would they put it on there? They know it means something. They’re using our good name to promote the beef they’re bringing in from other countries.”

Marcie said she worries about the nation’s ability to pin down the source in a public health crisis.

“Even if it came from another country, it says ‘Product of USA,’ so what happens to our markets?” she said. “If you get mandatory COOL, you know if that meat is from the United States. If something bad happens with our own meat, we can handle it. You can’t do that if it’s coming from somewhere else.

“It bothers me, because they label everything else. You go to the grocery store and pick up avocadoes, you know they came from Mexico.”

Fixing labels

Ryan said he doesn’t know of any ranchers in his community against COOL, but acknowledges they exist.

“There are guys that believe COOL would cost us money, but when we had COOL, it never cost me a dime,” he said. “Lawmakers should have stuck to their guns. I think we would have been fine. Yeah, we might have had tariffs to pay (for imported beef), but it wouldn’t have been a big deal. I’ve always said, put the choice in front of the people that eat the meat.”

After Ryan’s letter about COOL was published in the Bismarck Tribune, a woman from Bismarck wrote him a letter, asking him about the “Product of USA” label on the meat she buys. She doubted its accuracy and wanted confirmation. She didn’t leave a phone number, but the Brokaws tracked her down anyway.

“She said, I know you’re busy, but I don’t trust that label, but I’m not sure,” Ryan said. “I said, you’re right not to trust that label. If she wants to take the time to learn about this, you dang right I’m gonna talk to her. Our message to all consumers is to get educated about the labels on your meat.”

The Brokaws said, to start, they want to see the “Product of USA” label addressed, and that appears to be happening, but not in support of producers.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which regulates the labeling of meat products sold in commerce in the U.S., took comments from stakeholders on both sides after the Organization for Competitive Markets and the American Grassfed Association submitted petitions in the fall of 2018, to be later joined by a petition from the United States Cattlemen’s Association. NDFU submitted comments in support of the petitions, arguing that “Product of USA” must be restricted to animals born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S.

In March, FSIS announced it would initiate a second round of rulemaking on the “Product of USA” label, acknowledging the label’s confusion for consumers.

However, FSIS is looking to solve the problem by making it clearer to consumers that the current label only means processed and packaged, as opposed to actually changing the definition to “animals born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S.”

For the family

The pandemic has opened consumers’ eyes to the value of knowing where their meat comes from, Ryan said, adding that not every consumer has access to a local rancher and would value American-raised beef in the grocery store.

“There are more people actually wanting to buy a product of the U.S.A.,” he said. “They want to buy from local ranchers, but trying to get a butcher appointment around here is difficult.”

Marcie said having beef labeled with its country of origin gives consumers an option for those that don’t have access to a local rancher, and it encourages consumers to be curious about where their food comes from.

“I want to teach my kids where their food comes from, where it’s grown and how it’s raised,” she said. “One day, if they choose to move to the big city, they know what they’re looking for because they were taught. Mandatory COOL is a way for them to know.”

U.S. packers and processors remain steadfastly against COOL, mostly because of the disruptions in the supply chain, which they argue will eventually cost ranchers money. Ryan vehemently disagrees with that notion and believes consumers would economically support COOL. He sees COOL as an avenue to help keep his children on the ranch.

“Ranching goes pretty deep in our family – I’m fighting this for my kids,” he said. “We’re at a critical juncture in the cattle business. We’re gonna run out of young people if we don’t have any way for these young kids to start farming and ranching. We need to get our industry fixed.”

“We’re not out here to get rich,” Marcie added. “We want to make a living, teach our kids the value of what we’re doing, and hopefully, some day pass it on to them.”

— Chris Aarhus, NDFU Editor