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There are many mixed views of country-of-origin labeling. The proverbial political pendulum has been swinging back and forth since the Country-of-Origin Labeling Act was passed by Congress and signed into law as a piece of the 2002 Farm Bill by President George W. Bush.

Since that time, a provision in the fiscal year 2004 Omnibus Appropriations package revised the effective date for the mandatory rules to go into effect from Sept. 30, 2004, to Sept. 30, 2006.

Swinging the opposite direction, on July 22, 2004, the House Ag Committee passed a bill, introduced by Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Ranking Minority Member Charles Stenholm (D-TX), which is known as the Food Promotion Act of 2004. This bill directs the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a voluntary country-of-origin labeling program for fruits, vegetables, meat (including beef, pork, veal, lamb) and seafood. A full House vote is expected this fall.

And it doesn't appear that the pendulum will stop here, because farm groups supporting both sides of the country-of-origin labeling issue are burning the midnight oil, pleading their cases and garnering support.

One such organization is the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), which supports the Food Promotion Act and its voluntary COOL program. The association believes voluntary country-of-origin labeling is the best idea for United States producers.

Bryan Dierlam, director of legislative affairs, National Cattlemen's Beef Association
Bryan Dierlam, director of legislative affairs for NCBA, says: "Chairman Goodlatte and Ranking Minority Member Stenholm have developed a voluntary program that accomplished the objectives of country-of-origin labeling, which is to provide origin information to consumers and to promote American agriculture products in a way that is beneficial - not burdensome - to producers and growers."

According to Karen Batra, NCBA's director of public affairs, the voluntary program offers producers the opportunity to participate at their choosing and without incurring a burdening expense from additional paperwork and record keeping. She says various reports and studies have estimated the cost of implementing COOL at $4 billion.

"A key point is that very little is known about how COOL will work and how consumers will react. This issue has been evolving over some time, but there are still a lot of questions out there," Batra says. "The best way that we see is to put in place a voluntary program and test it out. Under the voluntary regime, you have time to work out the kinks."

On the other side of the spectrum is the National Farmers Union, which says mandatory country-of-origin labeling is critical for U.S. producers to remain competitive. Tom Buis, vice president of government relations, explains that exporting countries are able to ship food products such as meat cuts into the U.S. where they are further processed and given a USDA grade label. Buis says this confuses the consumer as to the true origin of products, and mandatory COOL would help to further differentiate U.S. products from those of other countries.

Tom Buis, vice president of government relations, National Farmers Union
NFU also likens the voluntary labeling law to a voluntary speed limit, which Buis says "just doesn't make sense." Dave Frederickson, president of NFU said in a statement, "There is no reason to believe that the companies that profit from importing cheaper food products from other countries would voluntarily label these products, especially when numerous surveys show consumers prefer to buy U.S.-origin foods."

Buis says another disappointment to NFU if the Food Promotion Act is passed by Congress will be the ability to alter the 2002 Farm Bill. "The Goodlatte-Stenholm law repeals the mandatory law and, if passed, it could potentially set off a fight in farm bill policy that will affect other areas. It opens the farm bill up for farm critics to amend anything they don't like," he says.

Despite the politics, all sides agree that differentiating U.S. products from other countries via country-of-origin labeling is necessary. The problem is agreeing on the timing and the type of enforcement of the policy. NCBA's Batra makes a great point, saying, "We need to get emotion out of the debate and look at what it takes to actually get the program off the ground." AM

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