WASHINGTON (FNS) -- Congressional advocates of country-of-origin labeling for produce are linking their campaign with food-safety concerns and the upcoming debate over giving the Clinton administration negotiating authority for free-trade pacts.
Reps. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Bart Stupak, D-Mich., are soliciting backing from their House colleagues in their quest to mandate the labels on all imported food and to increase funding for border inspections.
The two members of Congress were expected to send a letter to President Clinton this week, stating their concerns and demands.
The link to the food-safety issue surfaced in the wake of recent reports that fruits and vegetables contaminated with diseases and unhealthy pesticides have been imported from Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement and from other countries.
A draft of a letter to Clinton from Brown and Stupak says, "We expect that any future request for fast-track authority will include adequate food-safety protections+We were alarmed earlier this year when 179 Michigan school children contracted hepatitis after eating tainted Mexican strawberries."
Stupak and Brown are specifically asking the administration to renegotiate NAFTA and specify in its request for fast-track authority to require "strong food-safety protections."
They also ask that funding for border inspections be increased and that food imports be reduced, and are seeking an "aggressive program to label all food."
The matter may have come to a head last week, when Clinton was expected to announce details of his request for fast-track negotiating authority. Long awaited on Capitol Hill, the request could be the last big battle in the House and Senate this year.
Fast-track authority, which permits the administration to negotiate trade pacts free from fear that Congress will amend them, could shape trade agreements between the United States and Latin American and Pacific Rim countries.
Fast track is contentious for a variety of reasons and food safety is emerging as something that likely will have to be resolved so fast track can be approved.
Retailers and some food suppliers, meanwhile, are marshaling their defenses against the country-of-origin proposal, which has been simmering for years since the Customs Service proposed front-label country-of-origin markings.
Some food-industry associations have joined together in the Food Industry Trade Coalition to fight the idea. In addition to Stupak's and Brown's effort, the coalition is fighting a bill introduced by Rep. Terry Everett, R-Ala., that would require country-of-origin labeling on the front panel of imported frozen produce.
Industry representatives are contending that Brown and Stupak are using the food-safety issue in an effort to defeat a fast-track extension.
"We think it is most inappropriate to try to scare consumers and smear the food industry when their only motive is protectionism," said one industry spokesman. Also, food trade groups say the labeling mandate would require producers and manufacturers to undertake costly labeling redesign.
George Green, vice president and assistant general counsel for the Food Marketing Institute here, called the labeling proposal "a bad idea" because it could cause in-store labeling difficulties in the perishables section of the store, which is one of the most important for supermarkets.
"Consumers are looking for appearance, quality and price," Green said. "They never tell us they are looking for country of origin."
Ray Gilmer, a spokesman for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, Orlando, disagreed. Florida's law mandating country-of-origin labels on produce, on the books since 1989, requires point-of-purchase labels.
"With all the differing production practices and handling practices, we think it's a good idea that consumers have as much information as we can provide," Gilmer said in a telephone interview.