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Congress bends to food processors, grocers

By Marilyn Bay Wentz

Despite strong support from a total of 165 agricultural, consumer and other groups, including the nation’s two major farm organizations—National Farmers Union (NFU) and the American Farm Bureau Federation—and every major consumer organization, Congress continues to be persuaded by a small number of powerful corporations objecting to mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL).

When Congress adjourned at the end of last year, its Omnibus spending bill provided no funding for COOL. When Congress reconvenes Jan. 20, both the House and Senate will vote on the spending bill, which includes billions of dollars in funding for multiple departments of the federal government.

This development leads many supporters of COOL scratching their heads in bewilderment. How can legislation passed into law as part of the 2002 farm bill, and signed by President George Bush May 13, 2002, fail to be implemented?

Country-of-origin food labeling has been a contentious issue for more than a decade. NFU and Rocky Mountain Farmers Union (RMFU) always have supported it. In recent years, as the level of imports have risen and food safety breeches have increased, others have come to the side of Farmers Union in support of mandatory COOL.

The need to label imports was addressed at least as far back as the Tariff Act of 1930. This act read that every imported item was required to have indicated to the item’s “ultimate purchaser” its country of origin. The Tariff Act of 1930 is still in effect. The reason imported food is not labeled is that lawyers representing importers have successfully argued that the importers and processors are the “ultimate purchasers.” This is the reason everything from cheap trinkets to clothes to furniture is labeled with its country of origin, while food is not.

COOL, as part of the 2002 farm bill, sought to amend this failure. Unfortunately, members of Congress have listened to food importers, processors and grocers who contend that it is too difficult and costly to implement COOL. While there is some cost associated with COOL, both for oversight and for the labeling, it cannot be overly expensive since manufacturers of countless inexpensive items, from wooden spoons to kid’s party favors, are able to label their products and still sell them at a reasonable price.

The bottom line is that food processors and grocers do not want to label fresh foods because they do not want to be bothered, and more importantly, they do not want consumers to know where their food originates. Consumers thinking twice before buying a belt made in China will certainly ponder buying hamburger “Made from animals raised in Canada, Chile, Australia and Mexico and other countries.”

Processors and grocers know this, and they have convinced members of Congress not to fund COOL. The U.S. Senate passed COOL funding. However, when the U.S. House decided not to pass funding for COOL, the Senate felt so strongly that it passed a “Sense of the Senate” bill urging the House to fund COOL. The House ignored the Senate’s request.

Wyoming Sens. Mike Enzi (R) and Craig Thomas (R), along with New Mexico Sens. Pete Domenici (R) and Jeff Bingaman (D) voted in favor of the “Sense of the Senate” measure imploring the House to support COOL.

Colorado Sens. Wayne Allard (R) and Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R) did not support the measure.

RMFU members need to continue urging both their senators and their representative to support COOL. Commend the Wyoming and New Mexico senators supporting COOL and complain bitterly to Allard and Campbell for not supporting it. Those with e-mail can send such messages to their representatives by using National Farmers Union’s website www.nfu.org and clicking on the contact button on the upper right hand of the NFU home page. This will provide you with the e-mail address of your representatives—all you have to do is type in your zip code—and it even provides language for those who don’t feel they are good with composing a letter or who do not have the time to do so. This is a quick and easy yet effective way of communicating your desires to your elected officials!

In addition, NFU is planning a mini fly-in Jan. 19-20 to address both COOL and the mad cow disease issues. Those interested in participating can contact RMFU President John Stencel at 800-373-7638.