WASHINGTON — With consumers nervous about the first known case of mad cow disease in the United States, food labeling has emerged as a contentious issue on Capitol Hill, where Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader, called Wednesday for the Bush administration to require that supermarket meat carry country-of-origin labels immediately.
Mr. Daschle and other backers of labels contend that they benefit consumers as well as independent farmers and ranchers, who could get a premium price for meat labeled Made in America.
Critics, including meatpackers and the major organization representing cattlemen in the United States, say labels are too costly and do not improve food safety.
The dispute has the potential to derail a $328 billion catchall appropriations measure that the Senate is scheduled to take up when it reconvenes on Jan. 20. But while lawmakers were debating labeling, the White House was working to persuade Japan to lift a ban on imported American beef imposed after the Dec. 23 discovery that a cow in Washington State was infected with mad cow disease.
A delegation of Japanese officials arrived in Washington Wednesday to investigate the mad cow case, and the Japanese trade minister, Shoichi Nakagawa, met Wednesday afternoon with Ann M. Veneman, the secretary of agriculture. Japan is the single biggest importer of American beef, and the industry is eager for the ban to be lifted.
"It was a very broad meeting," said a spokeswoman for the secretary, Julie Quick. "It was positive. We made progress." She did not provide specifics.
The labeling requirements, which apply to beef, pork, fish and fruits and vegetables, are scheduled to take effect on Sept. 30, under a bill passed in 2002. But the spending bill includes a provision that would delay the program by two years for all foods except farm-raised catfish and Alaskan salmon products, which face stiff foreign competition and are produced in Mississippi and Alaska, the home states of two powerful appropriators, Senators Thad Cochran and Ted Stevens.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Mr. Daschle vowed to block the appropriations measure, called an omnibus bill, if the two-year delay remains in it, and predicted some Republicans would do so as well.
"Given the concern on both sides of the aisle for country-of-origin labeling, especially now with the mad cow incident, I would not be surprised if a number of Republicans would join us in opposition to the omnibus as it's currently written," said Mr. Daschle, whose constituents in South Dakota include ranchers who might benefit from the labeling provision.
But at least one Republican who strongly favors labeling requirements, Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, said he would not vote against the spending bill. And Representative Henry Bonilla, a Texas Republican who wrote the provision imposing the delay, said House leaders strongly opposed labeling, seeing it as a costly regulatory burden on industry.
"This is an issue that has strong, deep support in the House," Mr. Bonilla said. He added that he believed Mr. Daschle was "terribly misguided."
Mr. Daschle said 43 countries required country-of-origin labeling, including Japan. Backers of labeling cited the Japanese requirement, along with the confirmation this week that the diseased cow had been born in Canada, as all the more reason for the United States to adopt a labeling system.
"Without country-of-origin labeling, consumers simply cannot make an informed choice between U.S. and imported food," said Jeff Nesbit, the associate director of the Food Policy Institute of the Consumer Federation of America, an advocacy group. He said the mad cow scare "only highlights this. Consumers have a right to know where their food comes from."
Mr. Grassley said: "You've got this situation that, prior to the ban on imports, we were going to have to satisfy the Japanese government that beef that we sold them originated in the United States. So you've got the ironic situation that if an American consumer wants to buy American-labeled beef, they've got to go to Japan to do it."
Chandler Keys, a spokesman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the major organization representing cattlemen in the United States, said there were "huge divisions within the industry" about the wisdom of food labeling.
"We think it's a marketing issue," Mr. Keys said, adding, "It has nothing to do with food safety."
In Congress, the issue cuts more across regional lines than party lines. Lawmakers in Texas and California, for instance, where large cattle ranches tend to integrate their business with neighboring Mexico, tend to oppose the labeling provision.
But cattle ranchers say a similar relationship has not existed between the northern states and Canada, which is one reason lawmakers from some northern states tend to support the labeling.
For Mr. Daschle, who learned this week that he would face a tough re-election race against John Thune, a former House member, there are also immediate political reasons for making labeling an issue.
At his news conference, the Democratic leader seemed to concede Mr. Keys's point about food safety. Asked if he had curtailed his beef intake, Mr. Daschle replied with a smile, "I had a great steak just last night."
Copyright 2004 New York Times Company