Backers of Food Labels Pledge to Fight Delay

Senate supporters of labeling meat (search) with its country of origin say their fight isn't over despite Congress' approval of legislation Thursday that would delay the effort for two years.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., a supporter of the labels, said amendments will be offered to upcoming bills that would erase the delay. Supporters also will try to come up with a resolution for vetoing Agriculture Department regulations on the issue once they are published, he said.

"We will take both tracks and apply them whenever and wherever we can," he said.

Under the 2002 farm bill (search), supermarkets were required to use labels telling consumers where their meat, fish, vegetables, fruit and peanuts come from. The program was to take effect in September.

Although both the House and Senate voted last year to keep that timetable, supermarkets and processors complained, arguing that the program would be costly. In response, House and Senate Republican leaders who put together a massive spending bill for the Agriculture Department and other agencies included language to delay the labels for two years.

Supporters of the labels say they would allow consumers to know where the meat they buy comes from and be a boon to ranchers with small operations.

The issue got new attention after the Dec. 23 announcement of the first mad cow (search) cases in the United States — a Holstein cow that was imported from Canada two years ago and slaughtered last month in Washington state. Supporters argued the labels would have helped investigators quickly track down the meat and cows linked to the sick animal.

Meat labeling advocates in the Senate agreed to allow the budget bill to pass after Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens of Alaska promised their concerns would addressed when the first new spending bill for the fiscal year that begins next October is considered this spring.

Daschle said the mad cow case underscores why the labels are important. For example, Japan, the leading buyer of American beef, will not reopen its markets to U.S. beef unless it is labeled. Selling in that market is critical to bring the price of beef "back to what it was prior to the mad cow crisis," he said.