WASHINGTON – Grocery shoppers will have to wait two more years for labels telling where their meat comes from, under a bill moving toward approval in Congress.
Originally required by law in 2004, mandatory meat labeling (search) has been delayed under pressure from meatpackers and supermarkets who say it's a record-keeping nightmare. House-Senate negotiators agreed late Wednesday to postpone it until 2008.
Western ranchers have been counting on the labels to help sell their beef. Labeling went into effect last April for fish and shellfish.
"This process is utterly corrupt," said Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said: "We put labels on T-shirts, shoes and a host of other products. The least we can do is let people know where the meat on their dinner plate comes from."
The delay is part of a $100 billion spending bill for food and farm programs (search) for the budget year that began Oct. 1. The House and Senate passed different versions of the bill, and a conference committee signed off Wednesday on a final version.
Lawmakers also agreed to override a court ruling on whether products with the round, green "USDA Organic" seal can contain small amounts of non-organic ingredients.
An appeals court decided earlier this year that non-organic substances — things like vitamins or baking powder — are not allowed in food bearing the seal. But more than 200 companies and trade groups said they can't make organic yogurt and many other products without the ingredients in question.
An estimate by the Organic Trade Association (search) said the court ruling would cost manufacturers $758 million annually. Organic food is a booming industry that has grown from $1 billion in 1990 to an estimated $14.5 billion this year.
Consumer groups have battled the companies' efforts, saying the integrity of organic food is at stake and people don't expect food labeled as organic to contain artificial ingredients.
Lawmakers also agreed to ban the slaughter of horses for meat sold for export to European countries.
Absent from the bill is a $3.1 billion spending cut for farm programs that Congress ordered earlier this year. Agriculture committees are deciding separately on budget cuts. The Senate Agriculture Committee approved the cuts last week, and the House Agriculture Committee is scheduled to vote on them Thursday.