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September 16, 2005   Email to Friend 

Address Unknown - Congress Delays Country-Of-Origin Labeling Despite Consumer Support
Debra Davis

Alabama Farmers Federation State Women's Committee Chairman Sharon Turner shops for beef. She would prefer to buy beef produced by an American farmer, but without country-of-origin labeling, she can't be sure.
A shopper strolling down the aisle of a local market could believe she's taking an international food tour, if she examines the labels of most food on the store shelves. There's ocean perch from China, cooked shrimp from Thailand and pineapple slices from Indonesia or the Philippines.

But when it comes to red meat, shoppers don't know where it comes from unless the market voluntarily labels the package--which, by the way, is about as rare as a cattleman's favorite steak.

That bothers shoppers like Sharon Turner of Geneva County, who is chairman of the Alabama Farmers Federation Women's Committee. She believes Americans want to know where their food comes from and that country-of-origin labeling (COOL) should have been implemented before now.

"I can go shopping and buy a shirt, and I know what it's made of and where it came from," she said. "We deserve at least that when it comes to our food. I think if given the choice, most shoppers would buy food grown by American farmers. I'd even be willing to pay more if I had to, because I'd know my food is safe."

Turner was referring to strict environmental and health standards American farmers must adhere to. Farmers in other countries, she said, don't have many of those same requirements.

"And supporting American farmers has other benefits besides assuring consumers that their food is safe," Turner said. "Buying from American farmers keeps our economy strong. A country that can't feed itself cannot survive. We've got to support our farmers to remain strong and free."

Mike Dunn, a member of the Alabama Farmers Federation State Board, who along with his wife, June, raises beef cattle on their farm in Bullock County, agrees with Turner. He said shoppers should have a choice.

"When June and I go to the grocery store and go to the meat counter, I believe that most consumers are like us. They believe the beef they're buying -- unless it says otherwise -- is produced in this country, and that's not necessarily so any more," Dunn said. "Many countries in this world are major beef producers, and they do not produce beef under the same standards that we do. We think the consuming public of this country needs to know that. That's what country-of-origin labeling is about -- giving them the choice."

When Congress passed the 2002 Farm Bill, the requirements for country-of-origin labeling were designed to do just that -- let consumers make an informed decision about their food purchases. But lobbying efforts by meat packers and retail associations, compounded by fears of the cost of implementing the requirements, influenced a majority of Congress to delay COOL for some types of food.

In a vote taken June 8, some U.S. Representatives sought to end the delays, but that move failed to garner enough support. Even proponents of labeling were swayed by the retailers' arguments that they needed more time to come up with an alternative to mandatory labeling, in spite of the overwhelming support for labeling by consumers.

"We are disappointed in the vote and especially with the fact that some in Congress didn't fully support consumers' rights to know where their food comes from," said Federation Director of National Affairs Keith Gray. "Before shoppers purchase clothing, they can look at the label and see where it came from. Our organization believes that shoppers should have at least those same rights before they buy food for their families."

The Alabama Farmers Federation, the state's largest farm organization, represents 464,000 members throughout Alabama. The Federation has a policy supporting COOL.

"Opponents of COOL say that this labeling regulation would cost 'billions per year,' but this is not the case," Gray said. "The USDA acknowledged that its original cost estimates were overstated due to a critical report from the General Accounting Office (GAO), Congress' non-partisan investigative arm.

"Opponents of COOL also argue requiring labeling is a non-tariff trade barrier and other countries would object to it. Again, the facts do not support this argument."

In 1993, the GAO conducted a study of 57 countries and the European Union, which constituted 94 percent of trade with the United States, Gray said. That study found the majority of these countries also required labeling and imposed fines for non-compliance just like the U.S. requirement.

"Just this past year, mandatory COOL was implemented for seafood," Gray said. "And grocers have found that the sky didn't fall. Shoppers continued to buy seafood from a variety of countries."

A recent survey conducted by Public Citizen, a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization with 150,000 members, shows that most Americans do want a choice.

Eight-five percent of those surveyed said they want COOL. Additionally, 74 percent support Congress making such labeling a mandatory program, and 55 percent have "little or not much trust" in the meat, seafood, produce and grocery industries to voluntarily provide country-of-origin information.

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