Legislators try to make country-of-origin labeling voluntary


SALEM, Ohio – Federal legislators who say mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL) is too costly for farmers have introduced a bill that would make it voluntary.

The proposed Food Promotion Act of 2004 would let the Secretary of Agriculture build a voluntary program for labeling produce, beef, pork, veal, lamb and seafood with country-of-origin information.

The bill was introduced June 15 by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Ranking Minority Member Charles Stenholm, D-Texas.

The bill had 13 additional cosponsors and has garnered support from 325 groups.

‘Rigorous.’ The legislation will strike the mandatory system and require the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a rigorous voluntary program, Goodlatte said.

“This approach, which benefits both consumers and producers, is preferable to a mandatory program which is more likely to hurt the folks it was intended to help.”

Support. Groups representing America’s cattle ranchers, pork producers, seafood producers and produce grower-shippers support it.

“Cattle producers have been working for years in support of a labeling program that promotes U.S. beef without overburdening producers,” said National Cattlemen’s Beef Association President Jan Lyons.

Lyons went on to say the initiative represents a market-based solution without the costs and liabilities of a mandated program.

Veggie market. More than 75 percent of produce offered for sale in U.S. retail stores already carries some labeling mechanism such as a sticker or package, which can be adapted to include origin labeling.

The bill says the labeling can occur as stickers, stamps, twist ties, plastic wrap or other tags.

United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association President Tom Stenzel says his group is backing the legislation.

“This legislation provides the framework for the produce industry to implement our commitment to widespread origin labeling, with strong oversight by the department of agriculture to measure our results,” Stenzel said.

Good for consumers. “We all agree that the goal is to give consumers useful information about where their food comes from,” added’ Kathy Means, vice president of government relations at the Produce Marketing Association.

“This legislation puts the labeling responsibility in the hands of marketers and the decision-making in the hands of consumers.”

Won’t work. At the same time, some are pointing out why a voluntary program won’t work.

The National Farmers Union characterized the bill as a veiled effort among country-of-origin labeling opponents to kill the law passed as part of the 2002 farm bill.

“Voluntary country-of-origin labeling has been an option for several years, but packers, processors and retailers have refused to participate despite an overwhelming majority of consumers wanting the information,” said Dave Frederickson, president of the farmers’ union.

In January, National Farmers Union released the results of a national survey that show 82 percent of consumers want country-of-origin information on their food and 85 percent would be more inclined to buy food produced in the United States.

“Unfortunately, without mandatory labeling, consumers have no way to distinguish U.S. quality products from the 11 percent of food products that are imported and consumed in the United States,” he said.

Following up. The Food Promotion Act calls for follow-up surveys every two years to determine how many producers are participating.

The surveys would also ask consumers if they recognize products’ country of origin.

If consumers can’t tell where a majority of their food comes from, the Secretary of Agriculture would offer incentives to increase the labeling.

If consumers can tell where the food comes from in two consecutive surveys, the Secretary of Agriculture would cease the surveys.

Other options. Other legislators are taking a stab at making mandatory labeling more producer-friendly.

The Country-of-Origin Labeling Amendment Act of 2003 was introduced in September 2003. That bill lays out covered commodities, restrictions and compliance.

The Country-of-Origin Labeling Enhancement Act of 2004, introduced in March, aims to get country-of-origin labeling rolling by the September 2004 deadline, and asks retailers to keep records on origin of their stock.

Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., introduced legislation to repeal the two-year delay of mandatory country-of-origin labeling included in the omnibus spending bill.

(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)


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