WASHINGTON -- Telling consumers where their meat, fruit and vegetables came from seemed such a good idea to U.S. ranchers and farmers in competition with imports that Congress two years ago ordered the food industry to do it. But meatpackers and food processors fought the law from the start, and newly emboldened Republicans now plan to repeal it before Thanksgiving.
As part of the 2002 farm bill, country-of-origin labeling was supposed to have gone into effect this fall. Congress last year postponed it until 2006. Now, House Republicans are trying to wipe it off the books as part of a spending bill they plan to finish this month.
House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said he expected the Senate to agree to repealing the measure, whose main champion two years ago was Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
"I can't find any real opposition to doing exactly what we want to do here," Blunt said.
President Bush never supported mandatory labeling. Chances for repealing the law improved when Daschle, still his party's leader in the Senate, was defeated for re-election Nov. 2.
"For Republicans to deny Americans the opportunity to `buy American' at the grocery store is anti-consumer, anti-farmer and anti-rancher," Daschle said Wednesday.
He and other Western senators were making an effort to keep repeal of the labeling law out of the wide-ranging spending bill Congress plans to pass before it leaves. Democrats acknowledged there was not much of an appetite to wage a battle over it.
Those who want the repeal say the labeling system is so expensive that it far outweighs any benefit to consumers. The Agriculture Department has estimated the cost could range from hundreds of millions to billions of dollars in the first year alone.
"Everybody realized it was going to cost a lot of money, and ranchers were going to have to bear most of that," said Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., chairman of a Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry subcommittee on the issue.
Food processors and other opponents of mandatory labeling say they are amenable to voluntary labels.
Grocery Manufacturers Association spokeswoman Stephanie Childs cited the government's voluntary standards for labeling organic food and said, "That's the sort of thing we should be looking toward."
Supporters of the labeling requirement says opponents want the repeal so producers will not have to spend money getting ready to follow the law. The House Agriculture Committee approved legislation this year to substitute a voluntary system for the current law.
The issue divides cattlemen and other livestock producers. Many of the bigger livestock and feedlot operations, as well as food processors, do not want mandatory labeling.
Producers in favor of mandatory labels believe consumers will prefer U.S.-grown food over foreign imports. The law requires companies to put country-of-origin labels on meat, vegetables and fruit.
"We really feel that country-of-origin labeling is one of the key things we need to keep ourselves competitive in that market. I understand the trade-offs," said Doran Junek, a rancher in Brewster, Kan. Junek also is executive director of the Kansas Cattlemen's Association, an affiliate of R-CALF United Stockgrowers of America.
Consumer groups say the issue is whether buyers have a right to know where their food came from.
"When nutrition labeling was suggested by advocates 25 years ago, the industry kept saying, `Oh, we can't do that,'" said Carol Tucker Foreman, director of food policy for the Consumer Federation of America. "Look, they've done it. They love it. Consumers use it."
The wrangling does not affect fish because Congress did not include fish last year when it delayed the mandatory labeling. Fresh and frozen fish will be required to carry labels beginning in April.
© 2004 AP