WASHINGTON – The Senate on Thursday sent a $100 billion food and farm spending bill to President Bush (search) that includes a two-year delay on labels telling grocery shoppers where their meat comes from.
In a separate action, the Senate voted to continue allowing big farms to collect millions of dollars from the government to subsidize their operations.
Approved on an 81-18 vote, the food and farm spending bill would postpone mandatory meat labeling until 2008. Originally sought by Western ranchers and required by law in 2004, country-of-origin labeling has stalled under pressure from meatpackers and supermarkets who call it a record-keeping nightmare.
"Consumers want to know where the meat they serve their families comes from," said Sen. Tim Johnson (search), D-S.D. "You know where your T-shirts come from. Why shouldn't you know where your T-bones come from?"
The measure also overrides a court ruling on whether products labeled "USDA Organic" can contain small amounts of non-organic substances. Earlier this year, an appeals court ruled that non-organic substances such as vitamins or baking powder can't be in food bearing the round, green seal.
More than 200 companies and trade groups said the ingredients are processing aids needed for making organic yogurt and many other products, and congressional negotiators agreed.
Organic food (search) is a small but rapidly growing segment of the industry, rising from $1 billion in 1990 to an estimated $14.5 billion this year. The Organic Trade Association, an industry group, said the court ruling would have cost manufacturers $758 million a year.
Consumer groups argued that the industry wanted to weaken standards for organic food and that people expect food with the organic seal to be free of artificial ingredients.
The measure on its way to the president's desk covers the Agriculture Department, Food and Drug Administration and related agencies, but it accounts for only a portion of federal spending for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
The Senate on Thursday was also debating spending cuts across the entire federal budget over the next five years, including a $3.1 billion cut in food and farm programs. The reduction would cut all payments to farmers by 2.5 percent and reduce conservation spending by 4.3 percent.
As part of that bill, lawmakers voted 53-46 against capping payments to farms and closing loopholes that allow some growers to collect millions of dollars annually. Sen. Charles Grassley (search), R-Iowa, wants to lower the limit from $360,000 for farms to $250,000 per married couple and close the loopholes.
Payment limits have widespread support in Congress but face powerful opposition in GOP Sens. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, who heads the Agriculture Committee. Chambliss said Thursday the limits would disproportionately penalize southern crops like cotton and rice.
One aspect of the Senate budget bill has drawn strong objection from the White House. The measure would extend subsidy programs -- currently running through 2007 -- until the end of 2011. The Bush administration argues this would undermine global trade talks aimed at curbing farm subsidies in wealthy nations.
Chambliss says that the extension is technical and that Congress intends to write a new farm bill in 2007.
Overall, the $39 billion in Senate budget cuts are less severe than the $54 billion sought by the House. The House is considering cutting $844 million from nutrition programs, which would take food stamps away from an estimated 300,000 people.
The House plan would spare farmers from all but a 1 percent cut in direct payments, which is one of four types of commodity payments farmers get from the government.