WASHINGTON -- A duel is shaping up in Congress over whether to go forward with or delay implementation of controversial country-of-origin labeling for meat, fish, produce and peanuts.
Debate over the fate of country-of-origin labeling (COOL) is tied up in last-minute wrangling over how to fund the Agriculture Department in the next year. The agency is charged with implementing COOL by next September.
The House and Senate are now in the midst of bridging differences in their Agriculture funding bills. The House-passed version contains some COOL relief by delaying funding of meat labeling by at least one year.
However, the Senate earlier this month on a voice vote called on Agriculture budget negotiators to keep COOL intact during talks with the House and reject the meat exception.
Proponents of COOL, a group of Republicans and Democrats from produce- and beef-producing states, liken the need to label a food's origin to other government-labeling mandates like those for apparel, cars and cameras.
"Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture cites ... survey findings [showing] that country-of-origin labeling is of interest to the majority of consumers," said COOL supporter Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), who is also chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Grassley labels as "outlandish" USDA's estimated costs of $582 million to $3.9 billion to the food industry to implement COOL the first year.
Although the Senate's COOL vote was on a non-binding resolution, it was nonetheless a signal the long-fought battle over COOL would be going into high gear, as Congress nears adjournment for the year. The Agriculture funding bill is considered the best legislative opportunity to change COOL before its implementation date.
John Motley, senior vice president of Food Marketing Institute, said there's a chance some kind of COOL-delay provision would emerge in the final USDA funding bill.
"You have a significant group of [lawmakers] on and off the appropriations committees who say this law has to be fixed in some way," Motley said.
COOL legislation was passed by Congress last year and viewed by backers as a means to underscore with consumers which food is U.S. grown and raised and which is imported. Proponents also characterized the need for labeling as a food-safety issue.
Retailers remain among the largest opponents of COOL, and have hoped at least to see implementation of the law delayed. Supermarkets are fighting COOL because of its costs and paperwork, and they argue a mandatory program would interfere with voluntary labeling.
Growers and ranchers fall on both sides of the issue, although COOL's opponents now can claim as supporters several key defectors and large suppliers from the opposing camp, like the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association.
"Now is the time for Congress to step back and reevaluate its rush to judgment with this law. Far too much controversy exists on the potential costs and benefits of the rules implementing the law to require enforcement in less than 11 months," said UFFVA President Tom Stenzel, in a prepared statement.
As an alternative to quick implementation of COOL, Stenzel called for a "summit meeting of our produce industry members with the retail supermarket industry to begin intense work on a market-driven labeling system that we can all embrace."
Food-industry proponents of COOL continue to argue labeling doesn't have to be burdensome or costly, and cite a General Accounting Office challenge of USDA COOL cost estimates as being based on broad assumptions. Proponents also note that 57 of U.S. trading partners require labeling as to country.