By BOB ANEZ
Associated Press Writer
HELENA - Amid some fears of doing more harm than good, the Senate late Wednesday tentatively approved a requirement that meat and other foods sold in Montana be labeled to identify where the items were produced.
The bill is sponsored by Rep. Bob Bergren, D-Havre.
Most of the country-of-origin labeling bill, endorsed 40-10, would take effect Oct. 1, 2006, to give the Bush administration time to implement an identical federal law. That mandate was set to take effect this fall, but has been postponed until at least September 2006.
Senate President Jon Tester, a Democrat and Big Sandy farmer, said the House-passed bill offers a new marketing tool for Montana ranchers that will help the economy and attract cattle feeding and meatpacking operations to the state to make use of the Montana brand.
''There's an opportunity to sell more beef products in this state if people know where it comes from,'' he said. ''We need to get back to a time when we slaughter Montana beef for Montana people.''
But critics feared the bill would be a blow to Montana ranchers whose cattle have to spend so much time out of state for feeding and slaughter that the beef could not sport a label identifying it as a Montana product.
Republican Sen. Keith Bales, a rancher from Otter, said the bill would affect a cattle-marketing project of his because the need to use out-of-state feedlots and packing plants would prevent him from marketing the beef in Montana as being a product of Montana.
The state lacks the kind of cattle-handling operations that are needed for ranchers to take advantage of the proposed labeling law, he said.
Bales also predicted that passage of the bill will invite a lawsuit by the federal government claiming that the law is pre-empted by the federal statute, and fighting such a suit will be costly.
Tester successfully proposed a change in the bill that would eliminate the state requirement if the federal one is implemented. But the state should not wait to act in the meantime, he said.
''It's time for Montana to show some leadership,'' Tester said. ''Montana is stepping forward and saying enough is enough. We're acting for our producers.''
House Bill 406 faces a final Senate vote as early as Friday.