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By Austin Snedden, Ranching Contributor, Valley Ag Voice

Austin Snedden
Austin Snedden, Valley Ag Voice ranching contributor

“The customer is always right” is an age old saying taught in business classes for years. Everyone knows that the customer is not always right, and this is based purely on the fact that all consumers have purchased something that they regretted. However, the concept of the saying is inherently true from the seller’s perspective as businesses must satisfy the customer in order to make a sale. Currently, customers are facing the highest prices for beef they have ever seen, while at the same time cattle producers are receiving the lowest percentage of the beef dollar to date. There are multiple factors that contribute to this leverage disparity, but most would agree that the industry faces a processing bottleneck. Packer consolidation has resulted in fewer packing plants. Inadequate shackle space in the packing sector has created a backlog of cattle in the feeding sector and the associated loss of price leverage. No one single fix is going to cure the leverage problem the cattle industry faces, but we can make steps that will make a difference. One solution is based on the concept that “the customer is always right”— let’s let the consumer prioritize what fills that shackle space through their purchases.

Based on USDA data, the United States imported 2.1 million cattle from Canada and Mexico in 2020. This is on par with the average going back for multiple years. These imported cattle end up jockeying for position against U.S. raised cattle to find shackle space when they are ready for harvest. When these cattle come out the other end of the processing bottleneck as beef, they can slap on a “Product of USA” label. A solution to this problem would be to have accurate country of origin labels (COOL) on beef and let the customers decide through their purchases which nationalities of cattle get priority for that shackle space, and thus get a price leverage advantage.

To no one’s surprise, the packers have opposed COOL because they have enjoyed the leverage advantage and enjoyed the profits that mislabeling foreign cattle as “Product of USA” has provided. When you see origin labels on everything from plastic toys to vegetables, but not beef, you realize the power of the packer lobby. From my travels and discussions, I found that it is almost impossible to find a consumer that doesn’t support COOL. The folks you will find that oppose COOL are almost exclusively people that are cattle importers, beef importers, or people that have been paid or convinced to speak on their behalf. Opponents of COOL often try to shift the conversation to make folks think that COOL is somehow an import ban. COOL is accurate labeling—not an import ban, not an import quota, not even a tariff.

The United States cattle rancher has a storied history of independence and devotion to the quality of our production. Our story is one that deserves telling as we produce the best quality and safest beef in the world. Consumers are wanting to know more and more all the time about where their food comes from. It is time to let them know. The “Product of USA” label is something that we work hard for, and when it comes to beef, that label should belong exclusively the American cattle rancher. I think it is important for folks to let their congressman know about the importance of this issue. When it comes to prioritizing limited shackle space in the packing industry, “the customer is always right” should take effect. Let the customer choose which nationality of beef gets priority based off their purchase of accurately labeled beef.

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