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.
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
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