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Driskill: “County-Of-Origin” Labeling For Meat Products Needed Now; Industry Infighting The Problem

in News
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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Industry infighting is hampering efforts to develop a country-of-origin labeling program for meat products, according to a state senator who said he will back any legislation that will put the labels in place.

Two bills have been proposed in Congress in recent months regarding the proper labeling of beef raised in the United States and Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, told Cowboy State Daily on Thursday that either would be beneficial for anyone who consumes meat in the United States.

“U.S. beef deserves to have its own label,” he said. “But the meat industry has been manhandled by these large packers.”

Driskill explained that large meat packers see as a hinderance any requirement to properly label beef as a “product of the USA” and are unwilling to take on the time or costs to do so.

U.S. Sen. John Tester, D-Montana, recently introduced the “American Beef Labeling Act,” which he said ensures that only American beef will be labeled as being produced in the U.S.

In August, Sen. Mike Rounds, R-South Dakota, proposed the “USA Beef Act,” which limits the use of a “Product of the USA” label to beef that is born, raised and slaughtered in the United States. Currently, beef raised in other countries and slaughtered in the U.S. can use the label.

Wyoming Livestock Roundup publisher Dennis Sun told Cowboy State Daily on Wednesday that the biggest issue for Rounds’ bill — which is co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney and U.S. Sen. John Barrasso — is that no one, including Congress, livestock organizations and other officials, can seem to decide what is the proper way to label U.S. beef and beef from other countries.

“The problem is: we’ve got different organizations saying we need to make the labeling mandatory and some say it should be voluntary,” he said. “It’s also a pretty sure bet that the packers aren’t going to foot the cost of labeling and the process that goes into ensuring it’s properly packaged, so they’ll pass those costs on down.”

Driskill agreed with this sentiment, saying that the large packers are making life difficult for the smaller beef and livestock producers across the country.

“We’ve got a homegrown industry that has control of huge parts of the environment in the United States, and these people are struggling to make a living,” Driskill said. “All the while, we’ve got the large companies making record profits.”

According to Reuters, Mexico was the third-biggest foreign beef supplier to the United States in 2019, behind Australia and Canada. The United States accounted for about 86% of total Mexican beef exports, worth $1.3 billion.

“We’ve proven time and time again we have the best meat there is,” he said.

Driskill agreed that the U.S. has the best beef around, due to the way the animals are raised the quality corn and grass they are fed.

“U.S. corn-fed beef has always been the premium beef in the world and it stands on its own,” he said.

The bills proposed by Tester and Rounds are both aimed at guaranteeing that the “Product of the USA” designation applies only to beef widely accepted as being fully produced in the U.S.

“My American Beef Labeling Act ensures that ONLY American beef is labeled ‘Product of the USA,'” Tester said on social media about the bill. “This bipartisan bill is good for the ranchers, good for the cow-calf operators, good for the feeders—and really good for the consumers.”

Tester’s bill is being backed by a group of bipartisan senators that includes Rounds and his fellow senator from South Dakota, John Thune, along with U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat.

The American Beef Labeling Act calls for consultation between the U.S. Trade Representative and USDA to develop a World Trade Organization-compliant solution for improving beef labeling transparency, according to Farm Progress, an online agricultural news outlet.

The bill also has the support of U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis, who also cosponsored Rounds’ bill.

“I have long been supportive of mandatory country of origin labeling,” she told Cowboy State Daily. “As a cattle rancher in Wyoming, I know that the products produced in Wyoming are some of the best in the world and should be recognized as such. The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn attention to some of the vulnerabilities in our supply chains, and people have a right to know where their food comes from. I cosponsored Sen. Mike Round’s bill that would accomplish similar ends, and I support Sen. Tester’s efforts. I look forward to the Senate taking action on either of these bills.”

Barrasso is also a cosponsor of Rounds’ bill, which he noted to Cowboy State Daily on Tuesday when asked about Tester’s labeling legislation.

“Wyoming ranchers produce some of the highest quality beef in the world,” Barrasso said. “Any effort to provide Wyoming families with clear, truthful beef labeling must not violate existing U.S. trade obligations. Any such violation would lead to retaliatory tariffs that hurt American farmers, businesses and workers.

“American families want American beef,” he continued. “They do not want our economy to suffer through a costly tariff war with Mexico and Canada. I’m a cosponsor of Sen. Rounds’ USA Beef Act which gives consumers the accurate information they deserve without violating our international trade obligations.”

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On Bone Broth, and Coexistence

in Cat Urbigkit/Column/Agriculture
Guardian dogs
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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

The morning after Thanksgiving our house was once again filled with the smell of cooking turkey. But this time it was because we were boiling the carcass remains from the previous day’s feast. The bones are placed in the garbage once the broth is complete, but we pour the bone broth with chunks of meat in canning jars for reheating and pouring over the kibble of our working livestock guardian dogs on cold winter mornings.

Bones from a beef roast, leg of lamb, or leftover bird carcass all provide for delicious bone broth that can be used to make soup, but we like providing a nutrition boost for hard-working dogs and females raising pups.

livestock guardian dogs

On Thanksgiving we got the turkey in the oven before daylight and proceeded to outside chores at the first welcoming rays of light. The sheep were still on their bedground with their dogs, so we went across the ranch to check our game cameras, a vital part of our wolf monitoring program.

Fresh wolf tracks in new snow confirmed that wolves had paid an early-morning visit to our sheep range – their third nocturnal visit in a week. A resident female wolf that we helped radio collar a year ago has mostly kept to herself, but after we eliminated her mate a few months ago, she’s brought in another large male to the ranch, and their excursions are becoming more frequent. This male wolf’s track is large and distinct, and I suspect it’s the elusive male we had trouble with last fall and winter.

After we lost our two top guardian dogs, the male had become emboldened, and as I checked the cameras every morning, I would find his tracks atop my boot prints from the day before. As I tracked the wolf, he tracked me, marking and tearing up the ground where I walked, and he began coming to the rocks behind the house. He avoided the cameras, approaching them from behind, until one night in a fit of rage last November he attacked a camera, taking 85 selfies in the process.

That’s when we spooled up the guardian dogs, penned and fed the sheep, and set out wolf traps. After splitting up his pack, the male disappeared from our range. It had been quiet since I’d last come across his sign, but looking at those fresh tracks in the snow, it’s with a tense familiarity.

We follow the wolf tracks through the area our sheep flock grazed the day prior and see where the wolves and the guardian dogs each marked the same territorial boundary. The sheep and their dogs use the area during the day before being pushed toward the house every afternoon. The wolves wait until darkness falls across the range before moving in to explore where the sheep had spent the day.

Two nights ago, the wind-driven snow pushed the flock into the protected cover in the bottom of Sheep Creek. We tracked the wolves up the drainage to within a half-mile of the flock as they moved in response to the sheep movement below. The tracks in the snow left by the wolves, the guardians, and the sheep, lays out the reality of coexistence on the ground. The wolves are nearby, but are currently maintaining a certain distance.

It’s been a hard-fought coexistence. We deferred grazing this range one year and a pack of six wolves took over the range as their own. When we moved in the next year, the wolf pack come within a quarter-mile of the house and our penned sheep, causing massive brawls between the warring canine cousins. The wolves killed pronghorn antelope and mule deer within half-mile of the house, and the pack lounged atop the rocky ridge overlooking our headquarters, as our guardian dogs struggled to widen the territory of protected space. We had guardian dogs injured and killed, dozens of sheep injured and killed, and we’ve injured and killed wolves.

The sheep flock has its own guardian dogs that move with the flock as it grazes, as do the cattle, and we also have a guardian dog pack that controls the area around the ranch headquarters and pens. The wolves are no longer able to roam the ridge overlooking the house because that territory has been taken by the guardian dogs.

The biggest risk is to the sheep, with their smaller size and ever-changing grazing pattern. The livestock guardian dogs have managed to impose a restricted buffer of protection around the flock, but we know that any weakness of the dog pack – or any strengthening of the wolf pack –will cause this uneasy coexistence to end. 

So we prepare the bone broth, to boost our working dogs on cold winter mornings, to nourish them for whatever may lie ahead.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Unable to eliminate brucellosis, officials focus on containment

in News/Agriculture
Bull and cow elk in a meadow, ALT=Unable to eliminate brucellosis, officials focus on containment in elk and cattle
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Snubbing out a disease that causes cattle, elk and bison to abort their calves may not be feasible, but Wyoming is working to ensure it remains contained.

Brucella Abortus, a bacteria and one of the causative agents of brucellosis, was discovered in two northwestern Wyoming cattle herds in October. The latest in a line of several outbreaks of the disease since 2003, the affected herds were quarantined. But Wyoming State Veterinarian Dr. Jim Logan said the quarantine won’t prevent other herds in northwestern Wyoming from potentially contracting the disease from its primary vector — wildlife.

“In animals, (Brucellosis) is transmitted orally,” Logan explained. “If an (infected) aborted fetus or placenta or fluids get on the ground during the time the bacteria is active, cattle, bison and elk are pretty curious and will lick at stuff like that.”

Brucellosis is at its most dangerous February through June, when the affected species are calving, but he said the bacteria could be active for months if environmental conditions are right.

Humans who are exposed to direct contact with Brucella Abortus are also at risk, said Hank Edwards, supervisor for wildlife health at the Wyoming Game and Fish Laboratory.

“It goes to humans, but it doesn’t cause abortions,” Edwards explained. “It does cause undulant fever, which is not usually fatal, but that means it’s a fever that rises and falls, rises and falls. It is a nasty, nasty disease.”

Both Edwards and Logan said meat from infected animals is edible. “This is not a food safety issue as long as the food is properly prepared,” Logan said. “To my knowledge, brucellosis has never been transmitted in that way.”

It is most commonly transmitted to humans from unpasteurized milk, he added. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 100 people are infected in the U.S. with the disease annually.

Infected wildlife

Introduced to the Greater Yellowstone Area around the mid-1800s, Brucella Abortus spread unchecked through local fauna until the 1950s, Edwards said.

In 1954, congressional funding was allocated for a cooperative state-federal brucellosis eradication program, USDA documents state. At the time, Brucellosis was rampant across the country with about 124,000 affected cattle herds identified through testing across the U.S. in 1956. By 1992, only about 700 herds were affected and in recent years, affected herds nationwide are frequently in the single digits, the USDA reported.

All 50 states are now listed by the USDA as brucellosis-free, but Edwards said Wyoming is home to one of a few remaining Designated Surveillance Areas (DSA) for the disease.

The DSA in Wyoming consists of Park, Sublette and Teton counties in their entirety and parts of Fremont, Lincoln and Hot Springs counties.

Game and Fish Department personnel regularly test the elk and bison populations — the disease can infect other wildlife, but is primarily transmitted by elk, bison and cattle — in the DSA. Edwards said approximately 30 percent to 40 percent of elk and about 60 percent of bison in the area have been exposed to Brucella Abortus.

“This is an incredibly complex disease,” he said. “We now have that disease in our wildlife population and that spills back into our cattle population.”

In some cases, the disease spreads through wildlife herds at state-run feedgrounds, then the infected species move to feed lines on private property where it can spread to livestock.

“We’ve always figured that to control brucellosis, we could eliminate those feedgrounds,” Edwards said. “But, in another case, we found brucellosis in elk herd near Cody, which did not have access to feedgrounds. So, closing feedgrounds is not going to solve the issue.”

While vaccines exist for cattle and bison, one has not been successfully developed for elk. Even if one did exist, Edwards said administering it to the entire elk population of northwestern Wyoming would be extremely challenging. 

“All a vaccine does is limit the severity of the disease,” Edwards said. “It does not stop it from spreading.”

Livestock interaction

After decades of aggressively targeting the brucellosis in the U.S., the federal and state campaigns were successful and the disease disappeared from Wyoming’s log book for nearly 20 years.

One livestock case was recorded in 1988, then Brucellosis in cattle disappeared until 2003, Logan said. Since, about 12 cases have been recorded, occurring in ones and twos every couple of years, he recalled.

“If we get a positive result from a lab test … we immediately quarantine the herd from which the animal came,” Logan said. “That herd will be under quarantine until it has undergone three consecutive negative herd-wide tests.”

In the DSA, livestock producers are required to test their animals regularly. If an animal tests positive, producers are responsible for the quarantine. A positive test in the fall might not significantly affect their livelihood, because the herd would likely be on the home range during the winter months anyway, Logan said. But he explained a positive test in the summer could require the producer to keep the cows at home during prime range season, burning through valuable feed stores needed for the following winter.

There are several theories about the recent proliferation of Brucella Abortus, but Logan said he didn’t believe it could be attributed to a single reason. 

“I think there are lots of factors that come to play in this,” he said. “Some of it is urbanization, some of it is the elk population increase and an increase in large predators. If you look back in history, a lot of this has a lot to do with the reintroduction of wolves (in Wyoming).”

Wolves were reintroduced to the Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and 1996, and a few years later, ranchers started detecting brucellosis in their livestock again.

“What I have been told from various producers is wolves are moving elk where elk had not been before,” Logan said. “As a result, there is more likelihood of interaction with elk and cattle.”

Some ranchers believe using a different vaccine — the original vaccine — would eliminate Wyoming’s livestock brucellosis problem altogether.

In 1997, state veterinarians nationwide banned the old vaccine, Strain 19, because it left a residual trace or “titer” in some animals, creating a false positive for brucellosis in later tests. The vaccine was replaced with RB51, which Logan said is just as effective.

“It creates immunity a little different than the old one,” he said. “But it does not create the titer.” 

For now, constant testing and quarantines could be the best way to manage brucellosis in Wyoming, but Edwards said a solution might be needed soon.

“Brucellosis was introduced into the Greater Yellowstone Area around the Civil War, and for the most part, it stayed there — that’s something we can handle,” he explained. “But in the last six years, we’ve discovered it in the Big Horn Mountains. Here’s the scary part, because we have a disease we can’t really control, if it was to become established in a population like the Big Horn Mountains, there’s not a lot we can do to stop it outside of flying in a helicopter and culling all the elk.”

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