Friday, September 28, 2007

Food-Labeling Law Likely to be Included in Farm Bill

It's still nearly impossible to guess what the 2007 Farm Bill will end up looking like. But it's now almost a certainty that a long-awaited mandatory country-of-origin labeling law for retail agricultural products will be implemented as part of the bill.

The country-of-origin labeling law -- known by the acronym "COOL" -- was passed in 2002 and signed by President Bush. It was never implemented, however, after being delayed numerous times in the last five years. Click here to read an Iowa Independent article in June that reported some of the history of the law.

As the U.S Senate Agriculture Committee prepares to write its version of the 2007 Farm Bill, likely as soon as next week, a large bipartisan group of senators are speaking out in favor of adding COOL legislation to the bill. Early this week, Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Tim Johnson, D-S.D., penned a letter to committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, urging the addition of the "COOL compromise." The bipartisan duo obtained the signatures of 29 other senators for the letter.

"This compromise, reached during consideration of the House-passed farm bill, may not be perfect," said Grassley in a conference call with ag reporters. "But we feel it is a workable and common-sense rule." He said that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had failed for five years to get the law implemented, but noted Congress was also to blame for not providing adequate funding for the law. "Because of the inability for five years to get this under way, it's time for Congressional intervention to ensure the long-awaited implementation of mandatory COOL legislation."

The "compromise" on COOL was reached in the House Agriculture Committee and added to the House version of the Farm Bill passed in July.
"This consensus represents a reasonable compromise and finally clears the way to timely and reasonable implementation," said Grassley. "The problems and concerns created by USDA among producers, packers and retailers are alleviated in this compromise House language." Grassley explained that the compromise would establish three labeling options for meat. It would also allow ground meat to be labeled with a narrative list of countries of origin, but doesn't require percentages.

The National Farmers Union, which has been the leading organization pushing for implementation of mandatory COOL on agricultural products, has a comparison chart here, listing the differences between the compromise COOL language and the existing 2002 law. Under the compromise language, the law will mandate that all retail agricultural products -- everything from cherries and peanuts to hamburger and goat meat -- must be clearly labeled with country of origin.

Harkin, who has long supported mandatory COOL, told Iowa Independent in June that he would focus on keeping the law intact in the new farm bill. He was quoted this week by Brownfield Network as saying that he might tinker a bit with the House compromise COOL language in his bill, but said, "I want to make it very clear -- country-of-origin labeling will go into effect next year."
Any scenario that doesn't include COOL in the new farm bill is unlikely. Grassley and Johnson brought together some heavy-hitters as co-signers to their COOL letter, including all of the Democratic senators running for president. There weren't any Republican presidential candidates on the list, but counting Grassley, there were six Republican names. That's no small feat, considering the vehement opposition to mandatory COOL by many Republicans in the past five years.

"The usual opposition has been -- but no longer is -- everything outside the farm gate, between the farm gate and your mouth," said Grassley when asked who opposes mandatory COOL. "Processors, retailers, wholesalers, manufacturers, slaughterhouses, the American Meat Institute, all of those things."

In a press release, Grassley notes that consumer polls have consistently shown widespread support for COOL. A poll conducted by the Consumers Union in July found 92 percent of respondents believed imported food products should be labeled with their country of origin. A Zogby poll in August found 95 percent believe consumers have a right to know the country of origin of the foods they purchase.

No comments: