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Gazette opinion: Rotten politics delays food labeling again

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Feb 13, 2005
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Gazette opinion: Rotten politics delays food labeling again

Here's how to cook up a political solution when a law inconveniences special interests served by congressional leaders: Don't appropriate any money to implement that law.

The recipe is so quick and easy. It can be mixed up and served repeatedly, as ranchers and consumers have seen with the country-of-origin labeling law. Approved by Congress and President Bush in the 2002 Farm Bill, COOL was to be mandatory by October 2004 - until GOP leaders in the House, including the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, conspired to delay it until 2006 by simply not providing any money to make the labeling law work. The delay tactic worked so well, they did it again. Last week, a conference committee agreed to delay COOL until 2008. To overcome this backroom deal, the House and Senate would have to reject the entire agriculture budget. The House approved the budget and the Senate was expected to follow suit.

Any shopper who has browsed the seafood case at the local supermarket in the past year has noticed the "Product of United States," "Product of China," "Product of Russia" labels posted with fish and seafood products. Fruits and vegetables, even sauces and tortillas, state what country they were produced in.

But large meatpackers and some Texans whose cattle herds move back and forth between the United States and Mexico oppose COOL. Their opposition rings louder in the ears of congressional leaders than all the arguments of American ranchers who want their products marketed as made in the USA. The special interests have a place at the table while consumers who want to know where their meat comes from get nothing from this Congress.

Wyoming's U.S. senators, Mike Enzi and Craig Thomas, both Republicans, jointly called for conferees to block efforts to delay COOL. The Wyoming duo has introduced legislation to move up labeling implementation to January 2006. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., also has been a vocal proponent of COOL. Likewise, U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns last week said he is "furious" with the latest delay. But these Montana and Wyoming Republicans have been unable to sway their party.

In Montana, state Sen. Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, a candidate for the Senate seat Burns now holds, was the chief sponsor of Montana COOL legislation that was signed into law to take effect next year, if the federal law doesn't.

"COOL is a great idea because it gives consumers more information," Tester said last week. "American consumers would prefer to buy American and Montana beef. I know I do."

Here's another news item: While the GOP leadership was stalling labeling in the United States, New Zealand authorities last week were approving rules to require food suppliers to identify their produce's country of origin.

Consumer information is a good idea that's spreading - except in Congress where the leadership wallows in backroom deals that stall the law of the land. Something's rotten in the capital and it's not what's for dinner.


Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.

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