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Food-label mandate may be stripped away

WASHINGTON -- Telling consumers where their meat, fruit, and vegetables came from seemed such a good idea to US ranchers and farmers in competition with imports that two years ago Congress ordered the food industry to do it. But meatpackers and food processors fought the law from the start, and newly emboldened Republicans now plan to repeal it before Thanksgiving.

As part of the 2002 farm bill, country-of-origin labeling was supposed to have gone into effect this fall. Last year Congress postponed the measure until 2006. Now, House Republicans are trying to wipe it off the books as part of a spending bill they plan to finish this month.

House majority whip Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, said he expected the Senate to agree to repealing the measure, whose main champion two years ago was Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota.

''I can't find any real opposition to doing exactly what we want to do here," Blunt said.

President Bush never supported mandatory labeling. Chances for repealing the law improved when Daschle, still his party's leader in the Senate, was defeated Election Day.

Those who want the repeal say the labeling system is so expensive that it far outweighs any benefit to consumers. The Agriculture Department has estimated the cost could range from hundreds of millions to billions of dollars in the first year alone.

''Everybody realized it was going to cost a lot of money, and ranchers were going to have to bear most of that," said Senator Jim Talent, Republican of Missouri, chairman of a Senate agriculture, nutrition and forestry subcommittee on the issue.

Food processors and other opponents of mandatory labeling say they are amenable to voluntary labels. Grocery Manufacturers Association spokeswoman Stephanie Childs cited the government's voluntary standards for labeling organic food and said, ''That's the sort of thing we should be looking toward."

Supporters say opponents want the repeal so producers will not have to spend money getting ready to follow the law. The House Agriculture Committee approved legislation this year to substitute a voluntary system for the current law.

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