Shoppers are in the dark about where much of
their food comes from despite a five-year-old law requiring meat
and other products to carry labels with their country of origin.
That soon may change. Reports of tainted seafood from China have
raised consumer awareness about the safety of imported food and
many of the law's most powerful opponents have left Congress.
"The political dynamic is such that there's just no getting
around it," said Colin Woodall, director of legislative affairs
for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. The livestock group
has opposed a mandatory labeling program.
The Agriculture Department never put in place the labeling
requirement because then-majority Republicans repeatedly delayed
it, most recently to 2008.
The law's leading opponents are grocery stores and large
meatpacking companies, many of whom mix U.S. and Mexican beef,
along with other businesses involved in getting products to
supermarket shelves. They say the tracking and the paperwork needed
to comply with the law is too burdensome and would cause them to
Those interests had influential allies on Capitol Hill - mostly
Texas Republicans - before Democrats took over this year.
President Bush, a Texan who has strong ties to the cattle
industry, never has liked the labeling law, either. He reluctantly
embraced it as a part of the wide-ranging farm bill in 2002 that
set agriculture policy.
The labeling requirement, popular with small, independent
ranchers who sell their own products, applies to certain cuts of
beef, lamb, pork, as well as to peanuts, fruits and vegetables.
Processed foods are exempt. So are restaurants and other food
The labeling program was not delayed for seafood. The former
chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Republican Sen.
Ted Stevens of Alaska, wanted it to promote his state's lucrative
House supporters of the labeling law are working to make sure it
goes into effect next year. Their job will be easier because
several lawmakers - mostly Texas Republicans concerned about their
state's livestock industry - will not be around to block it.
"We had to kick and scream and fight to get this in the farm
bill," said Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont. He said supporters are
concerned that the Bush administration keeps dragging its feet.
Congress plans hearings this week on whether the Food and Drug
Administration can ensure the safety of the nation's food supply.
In the wake of increased U.S. complaints about tainted Chinese
products, the Chinese government late Friday said it has suspended
imports of chicken feet, pig ears and other animal products from
seven U.S. companies. Beijing claimed the American meat had
The spotlight on federal oversight is adding momentum to a
renewed push by consumer groups to put the labeling law in place.
"When consumers hear about all these things in China, their
tendency is to avoid things from China," said Chris Waldrop of the
Consumer Federation of America. "But they can't because we don't
have country of origin labeling, so they are left in the
supermarket to their own devices."
The same experts point to several instances of mad cow disease
in Canada as evidence of the need for stricter labeling.
But Regina Hildwine, director of food labeling and standards for
the Grocery Manufacturers Association, says the labels will be
"additional noise" on crowded packaging.
"There's a lot more information on a label that's more
important for a consumer to understand, like nutrition facts," she
Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., said he will try to beat back language
in a spending bill that would establish firm guidelines to begin
the labeling in September 2008. LaHood is siding with the
meatpacking companies and grocery chains.
"It's going to cause a lot of heartburn," he said.
The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Democratic Rep.
Collin Peterson of Minnesota, has said he would be open to writing
a new law if all sides could agree. Without a compromise, though,
he says he will leave it alone and let it begin in 2008.
Other lawmakers say that is not soon enough and are pushing for
the requirement to become effective this year. Sen. Kent Conrad,
D-N.D., said a must-pass spending bill could be an option to try
The law is a priority for lawmakers from the Midwest and
northern Rockies, where smaller ranchers face heavy competition
"Only by differentiating domestic beef from the rising tide of
imported beef can our industry compete," said Bill Bullard, chief
executive officer of R-CALF USA, a group that represents smaller
On the Net:
Agriculture Department background on the law:
Grocery Manufacturers Association: http://www.gmabrands.com/
Consumer Federation of America: http://www.consumerfed.org/