Tainted food imports and new Congress revive stalled food labeling law

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

raise prices.

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

service establishments.

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

fishing industry.

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

from Canada.

"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

independent producers.


On the Net:

Agriculture Department background on the law:


Grocery Manufacturers Association: http://www.gmabrands.com/

Consumer Federation of America: http://www.consumerfed.org/