Mad cow leads to renewed push for country-of-origin labeling

By Helen Dewar and Dan Morgan

January 7, 2004 -- CropChoice news -- Washington Post: The nation's first reported case of mad cow disease has pumped new life into congressional efforts to require country-of-origin labeling of beef and other foods. It also could complicate passage of a spending bill for most federal agencies when Congress reconvenes in two weeks.

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Lawmakers in 2001 ordered such labeling to begin this October. But a provision in the pending $328 billion "omnibus spending bill," inserted at the urging of meatpackers, pork producers and grocery chains, would delay the labeling for two years. Those groups say the proposed regulations would be burdensome and would not ensure a safer food supply.

But consumer groups, allied with many U.S. ranchers and cattlemen, want the labeling to begin on schedule. These ranchers say domestic and foreign consumers want beef from cattle that are born, raised and slaughtered in the United States, where food-safety standards are considered high.

Both sides say last month's discovery of a diseased cow in Washington state has renewed interest in the issue. Federal officials said yesterday that genetic testing confirmed the cow was born in Canada.

"The issue of mad cow disease has really shined a spotlight on this [labeling] issue," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee and a strong advocate of country-of-origin labeling. "It provides some real propellant as a major consumer issue that it did not have before."

Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who helped lead the fight for labeling rules, plans to call on the Bush administration today to take immediate action to implement the requirements. In conversations with about 20 colleagues so far, he said in an interview, he explored the idea of delaying passage of the spending bill to pursue a commitment from the administration to implement the labeling rules. Many senators appeared to favor the idea, Daschle said.

"With the mad cow problem, we cannot wait two years to find out where our meat comes from," he said.

The labeling issue is emerging as a problem for Senate GOP leaders, who plan to bring up the huge spending bill for a test vote when Congress convenes Jan. 20. The House passed the bill in December, but Senate Democrats blocked it, hoping to force reconsideration of several provisions, including new overtime and media consolidation rules. In its current form, the bill can be passed or blocked but not amended.

It is unclear whether Senate Democrats will try to block a vote or delay passage. The bill funds most nonmilitary agencies and departments through September. It also contains billions of dollars for favored programs and home-state projects.

Democratic aides said that even if the omnibus bill is approved, a provision ordering the Agriculture Department to implement the labeling requirement on schedule could be attached to other legislation.

The main sponsor of the provision to delay the labeling is Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Tex.), whose state is home to huge cattle feedlots that fatten some imported animals. His provision was deleted in the Senate, where labeling has bipartisan support from Midwest and Great Plains cattle-raising states. The Senate approved a separate resolution endorsing the labeling.

But GOP House-Senate negotiators agreed to delay the labeling of most agricultural products, except farm-raised and wild fish, for two years. That language is now part of the omnibus spending bill.

"We don't believe this is just a matter of delaying the regulations, but rather an attempt to kill country-of-origin labeling," said Trent Thomas, legislative director for R-CALF USA, which represents ranchers and small livestock producers.

Livestock groups, however, appear divided. Many state livestock organizations endorse labeling as a boon to marketing U.S. beef products at home and abroad.

But the National Cattlemen's Beef Association supports the two-year delay. The group represents mostly cattlemen, but its "product council" includes meatpackers and retailers. The meat industry is particularly concerned about labeling requirements for hamburger, which often mixes meat from animals from several countries.

Bryan Dierlam, legislative director of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, questioned whether the proposed rules would promote a safer food supply. Restaurants, he noted, would not be required to identify the source of their beef.

"The regulatory system should be based on sound science, not just raw emotion," he said.

Carol Tucker Foreman, director of food policy for the Consumer Federation of America, said the mad cow incident was only one of several recent ones that have given an impetus to going forward with the labeling requirements. She cited imports of contaminated cantaloupes and scallions implicated in an outbreak of hepatitis A.


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