EWING, Neb. — Dave Wright's cattle are Nebraska through and through. They're born on his Holt County ranch, raised eating hay grown here on the land his great-grandfather ranched, and auctioned at the sale barn 90 miles away in Burwell. From there it's on to a Nebraska feedlot and likely a Nebraska slaughterhouse.

But when they make it to the supermarket as steaks and roasts, it'll be anyone's guess where this beef is from. Shoppers may not even know whether it came from the United States.

That's because retailers are no longer required to put "country of origin" information on beef and pork labels. Congress repealed a labeling law in late December after the meat industry fought the law for more than a decade. The tipping point came when the World Trade Organization authorized more than $1 billion in retaliatory tariffs, after Canada and Mexico said the label requirement put their exports at a disadvantage.

Wright and other Nebraska ranchers say the repeal takes away an important marketing tool and somewhat devalues their product. Meanwhile, consumer groups say it will mean less information at the meat counter for supermarket shoppers.

"If you can't identify yourself in the marketplace, how are you going to sell your product?" Wright asked. "We have world trade, and the consumer does not know what country the food is coming from."

Before repeal, the labels told shoppers that a particular cut of meat was, for example, "born in Canada, raised and slaughtered in the United States" or "born, raised and slaughtered in the United States." Congress first required the labels in 2002 amid fears of mad cow disease from imported cattle. The labels weren't on most packages until 2009, though, due to delays pushed by the meat industry.

The repeal comes at a time when consumers increasingly say they are looking for transparency on labels, and when the government and food industry are grappling with other labeling questions, including how to define the claim of "natural" and whether to require labeling of GMO food ingredients.

Many in Nebraska's big beef industry, though, say the repeal was the right move. Nebraska Cattlemen supports voluntary labeling, saying ranchers and meatpackers that want to promote U.S. beef are still free to do so.

"Who wouldn't be supportive of saying, 'That's mine, and I put my pride and passion behind producing that high-quality protein'?" said Pete McClymont, executive vice president. But when labeling becomes law, he said, it can have unintended consequences.

Greater Omaha Packing, which employs more than 1,000 people in Omaha, said it wasn't difficult to meet the labeling requirement, because the cattle it purchases are born and raised in the Midwest.

Still, said Henry Davis, Greater Omaha president, "We do support free-market policies and recognize the need for the U.S. to live up to its international trade obligations."

Nebraska Beef, another Omaha beef processor employing about 1,000 people, said it too processes only cattle born, raised and slaughtered in the United States. The packer will leave "Product of USA" on its packaging material and does not plan to change its established processes, said James Timmerman, a company vice president.

He didn't think the repeal would hurt the company, and said it might help if it means more market-ready cattle imported to the United States from Canada, which could bring down the price processors pay.

Another savings for the meatpacking industry is the end of paperwork and procedures. A spokesman for Tyson Foods, one of Nebraska's biggest employers, said the company is grateful for the repeal of mandatory labeling.

"This law resulted in increased operating costs, hurting livestock producers and meat processors without providing any additional value to our customers and consumers," Gary Mickelson said.

With the repeal, he said, Tyson can now eliminate the practice of segregating cattle and hogs and finished products, as well as the record-keeping needed to meet labeling requirements. Tyson will continue to use the traceability program it has had for years for food safety and quality reasons, he said. Each beef carcass gets an ID number so it can be traced back to the feedlot.

"This is not, and has never been, a food safety issue," said Mark Dopp, senior vice president at the North American Meat Institute industry group, which represents packers.

"It's all marketing," he said. He pointed to the Certified Angus Beef brand as a way the meat industry has successfully created a voluntary marketing program. But while consumers may pay more for Angus beef, or for other specialty meat products, Dopp questioned whether they will pay more to know where their beef comes from, enough to cover the costs of labeling.

"It's easy for somebody to say, yes, they want to know" where the meat originates, he said. "It's another thing to see if people will put their money where their mouth is."

Kansas State University agricultural economics professors in a 2013 study determined that mandatory country of origin labels had no impact on consumer demand for meat.

More than 80 percent of beef sold in the United State comes from animals that have been born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S., but seeing that information on packages didn't drive up consumer demand for meat overall, co-author Glynn Tonsor said.

While studies have shown that consumers say they would prefer to buy U.S. beef, Tonsor said he doesn't know of existing research on the question of whether consumers actually have paid more for, or bought more of, U.S. beef relative to beef from, say, cattle born in Canada, after the labels were mandatory.

Shoppers may not even have realized the information was on labels.

"I just assumed it was from the U.S.," said Cary Mohiuddin of Omaha. Although she said she likes to buy local food, she doesn't check meat labels for country of origin information. "I haven't paid attention," she said.

Another shopper said she checks labels, but that country of origin information doesn't drive her decisions. "I'm looking for more lean, antibiotic-free," said Stella Haggas of Omaha. "I'm willing to pay a little more to get a better quality of meat. It doesn't matter to me if it came from Brazil or Canada."

The supermarket industry has opposed the regulations, saying they would bring extra training, equipment and labeling costs. Still, several Omaha retailers said they will continue to provide origin information because some consumers want to know.

"We will still continue to have the country of origin on our products, and let people know where their food comes from," said Allison Phelps, spokeswoman for Whole Foods Market.

Hy-Vee said it would do the same.

"All of our beef and pork has been and continues to be sourced (born, raised, harvested) in the United States, so the labels will say 'Product of USA,' " spokeswoman Tina Potthoff said.

Ralston meat market Just Good Meat sources beef from seven Nebraska ranches, and pork from Iowa, and co-owner Sean Fuller said his customers are looking for a local product. "Everybody knows it's local," Fuller said.

Rancher Wright still would like to see the information on display on every meat package. "We want the consumer to have a choice," he said. As it stands now, once he brings his cattle to the Burwell Livestock Market, they enter a food system where the beef is indistinguishable.

At a Friday afternoon sale in January, other local ranchers sat on bleachers and watched the steers and heifers trot into a pen. The cattle had snow on their backs and manure on their tails, as feedlot buyers sized them up and bid with a slight hand movement or a nod.

The auctioneer told one rancher, "Good job, nice cattle," and said to another, "Really outstanding head."

Pat Waldmann, who sold 90 cattle, took pride in the scene and said he wants consumers to know where their meat comes from: "We raise some of the best beef in the world, and we need credit for it."

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1336, barbara.soderlin@owh.com

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