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Senators say they will fight country-of-origin labeling dela

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Feb 11, 2005
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South East Kansas
Senators say they will fight country-of-origin labeling delay

KTIC 840 Rural Radio

September 23, 2005

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Senators from the High Plains say they will fight a provision in this year's House agriculture spending bill that would prevent meats from being labeled with their country of origin.

The House bill would block funding for implementation of the labeling law, scheduled to begin in September 2006. The Senate's agriculture spending bill, which passed Thursday, would leave the law alone.

The spending legislation now heads to a House-Senate conference where those differences will have to be resolved.

The labeling law, authorized in 2002 as part of six-year farm legislation, was written by Midwestern ranchers who fear competition from Canadian beef producers and contend that labeling the food would help consumers make educated choices about the meat they buy. That argument was fueled by two confirmed cases of mad cow disease in the United States. A Texas cow tested positive in June, and a Canadian-born cow in Washington state tested positive in December 2003.

Meatpackers and retailers, along with ranchers in the Southwest where Mexican and U.S. meat is often mixed in packing houses, say the massive paperwork associated with the labels will drive up costs and consumer prices. Rep. Henry Bonilla, a Texas Republican who is chairman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, has led the fight to kill the law.

Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., said people ``would like to know, and have the right to know'' where their food comes from.

``I believe most consumers support mandatory labeling,'' he said.

Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., chastised members of the House Wednesday for creating uncertainty at the Department of Agriculture.

``It's time to fish or cut bait,'' he said on the Senate floor. ``Either put this law into place as it was designed, or repeal it. You just can't leave me and my producers hanging in limbo.''

The 2005 Montana Legislature passed a law putting food labeling into effect in Montana on Oct. 1, 2006 if the federal government again delayed it.

This would not be the first time Congress pushed back the law, which also applies to fruits, vegetables and peanuts. In 2003, Congress pushed the start of the program from 2004 to 2006. House appropriators included language in last year's spending bill that would have made the program voluntary, but it was dropped after senators objected.

The Senate agriculture spending bill also included a measure to keep Kobe beef off U.S. menus if Japan won't buy American beef. Senators want to retaliate against Japan, once a $1.5 billion-a-year customer of U.S. beef, for refusing to lift a mad cow-related ban.

The bill also contains a provision delaying an Agriculture Department proposal to consolidate local Farm Service Agency offices. A plan outlined in a ``working document'' obtained by The Associated Press would close 665 of 2,353 offices nationwide.

Department officials say the numbers are inaccurate and that their goal is better service, not closing offices.

Thomas and Wyoming's other senator, Republican Michael Enzi, said Thursday that the state would receive about $5 million in the bill. That includes $1.4 million for a predator control program for Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.

The legislation also contains $350,000 for a research program to study diseases that are passed between livestock and wildlife
# Key lobbyists from the meat industry who fought COOL before it became law later were hired in strategic positions at the USDA, which was charged with crafting the regulations to implement COOL. Under their watch the agency estimated an initial one-year implementation cost of up to $3.9 billion, with few benefits, which served to bolster critic's views that COOL would be too expensive to warrant implementing.

# Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) is the lead sponsor of the Senate version of the voluntary COOL bill. He has received $38,250 from the COOL opponents, all of which was contributed during his inaugural 2002 Senate race. COOL foes may have relied on a special connection to lasso their man. Among the lobbyists employed by the NCBA to work on the COOL issue in the second half of 2004 was Colin Woodall. Until April of that year, Woodall worked for Cornyn on agriculture appropriations issues. The voluntary COOL bill Cornyn introduced in June 2005 appears to match the NCBA's demands.

# Well-placed Reps. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas) and Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) have been the two ringleaders in the effort to delay, and ultimately derail, COOL. And they have been well supported by agribusiness interests. Bonilla has received more than $167,000 from COOL opponents in the last three election cycles, making him their top beneficiary. As the chairman of the Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee, he has twice delayed the start date for the COOL program. Bonilla's delaying tactics have enabled Cornyn and Goodlatte, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, to build support for their legislation, which would make the mandatory labeling program voluntary – at least for meat products – effectively killing it. Goodlatte's actions have greatly pleased industry, which has given him more than $103,000 in the last three election cycles, ranking him No. 3 in the amount of contributions COOL opponents gave to sponsors of the voluntary COOL legislation.

One revealing example of the influence of money in politics lies in Arkansas, where lawmakers strongly supported country-of-origin labels for all food because of the state's catfish industry, which has suffered in recent years by an influx of a catfish-like species from Vietnam. But once the delegation got its way on fish labels, support disappeared for broader COOL legislation. All six members of the delegation are co-sponsoring a bill that would end the requirement for COOL labeling of meat. They received $338,500 from COOL foes in the last three election cycles. Also, among sponsors of the voluntary COOL legislation, the Arkansas delegation accounted for the only three Democrats among the top 30 recipients of contributions from COOL opponents: Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Reps. Marion Berry and Mike Ross.

From Public Citizen posted earlier.