WASHINGTON -- Retailers and wholesalers may be celebrating the demise of a congressional campaign for country-of-origin labels on fresh food, but producers say they plan to step up their fight next year.
The labeling measures, which would have affected both fresh meat and produce, were blocked during a contentious conference over the $55.9 billion Agriculture Appropriations bill, which was vetoed last week over emergency funding for farm crises. The spending bill was then included -- sans country-of-origin labels -- in an omnibus spending bill.
To food retailers and wholesalers, the death of country-of-origin labeling this year means that momentum for the bill should be stalled for next year as well.
"I think next year the pressure for this will go away," said David French, director of government relations for Food Distributors International, Falls Church, Va.
This year's debate stemmed from two Senate provisions that would have required both individual packages of beef and lamb, and fresh produce to bear a U.S. or import label at the point of retail sale. Products that combined sources of beef or lamb would have had to be labeled as a "blended product" or would have had to declare the percentage of imported and domestic product each contained. Currently, any imported meat further processed in the United States is considered a domestic product.
Both provisions were blocked in conference, where lawmakers instead crafted new language, in which country-of-origin labeling for meats will be studied over the next year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Produce labeling will be reviewed over the next six months by the General Accounting Office.
French said the meat study may garner some opposition from certain Agriculture staffers who -- in an earlier internal study of meat country-of-origin labeling -- said the program would be both expensive and burdensome for the agency to administer. French said he doesn't expect the earlier opinion to directly influence the new study, but still, he added, "there are people at the USDA that feel very strongly about this issue."
French said for now, though, he is pleased to see the labeling provisions blocked. "Personally, I think this was more of an emotional issue for producers," he said, adding that "these issues crop up every time you have bad prices."
To food producers, however, the labeling issue is about more than emotions. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association said, for example, that it considers such labeling an enhanced marketing tool for its products.
As such, country-of-origin labels will remain a top issue for the NCBA here next year.
The NCBA said it will urge Congress to re-introduce country-of-origin labeling as stand-alone legislation next year.
"This is just the beginning," said NCBA president Clark Willingham, a cattle producer from Dallas. "This is a frustrating setback for cattle producers at a time when cattle prices are low and producers are going out of business, but we're determined to stay in the fight."
Likewise, in the produce-labeling debate, Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, Orlando, Fla., said his group plans to continue its campaign next year. Stuart said his group will continue working with both the House and Senate Agriculture committees, as well as its industry opponents, next year.
"Hopefully, this [produce country-of-origin labeling] study can address some of the issues and we can put them to bed," he said. "I would hope at some point in time we could find some common ground."
The National Grocers Association, Reston, Va., an opponent of the bills, showed little inclination to compromise on country-of-origin labels last week, however, crediting its grassroots campaign for helping to block both Senate provisions.
"Country-of-origin labeling has nothing to do with food safety," said Thomas Wenning, the NGA's senior vice president and general counsel. "Requiring retailers to put labels on individual items artificially adds to the cost of the product. This isn't good for retailers, wholesalers or, most importantly, the American consumer."
Added NGA president and chief executive officer Thomas Zaucha, "Instead of country-of-origin labels, the focus should be on research to determine whether or not imported produce and meat comply with U.S. standards. If they do not, then the federal agencies should take appropriate action to assure that fresh meat and produce from other countries meet U.S. food-safety standards prior to entry into the domestic market."