WASHINGTON -- Shoppers are in the dark about where much of their food comes from despite a five-year-old law requiring meat and other products to carry labels with their country of origin.
That soon may change. Reports of tainted seafood from China have raised consumer awareness about the safety of imported food, and many of the law's opponents have left Congress.
"The political dynamic is such that there's just no getting around it," said Colin Woodall, director of legislative affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. The livestock group has opposed a mandatory labeling program.
The Agriculture Department never put in place the labeling requirement because then-majority Republicans repeatedly delayed it, most recently to 2008.
The law's leading opponents are grocery stores and large meatpacking companies, many of whom mix U.S. and Mexican beef, along with other businesses involved in getting products to supermarket shelves. They say the tracking and the paperwork needed to comply with the law is too burdensome and would cause them to raise prices.
Those interests had influential allies on Capitol Hill -- mostly Texas Republicans -- before Democrats took over this year.
President Bush, a Texan who has strong ties to the cattle industry, never has liked the labeling law, either. He reluctantly embraced it as a part of the wide-ranging farm bill in 2002 that set agriculture policy.
The labeling requirement, popular with small, independent ranchers who sell their own products, applies to certain cuts of beef, lamb, pork, as well as to peanuts, fruits and vegetables. Processed foods are exempt. So are restaurants and other food service establishments.
The labeling program was not delayed for seafood. The former chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, wanted it to promote his state's lucrative fishing industry.
House supporters of the labeling law are working to make sure it goes into effect next year. Their job will be easier because several lawmakers -- mostly Texas Republicans concerned about their state's livestock industry -- will not be around to block it.
"We had to kick and scream and fight to get this in the farm bill," said Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont. He said supporters are concerned that the Bush administration keeps dragging its feet.
Congress plans hearings this week on whether the Food and Drug Administration can ensure the safety of the nation's food supply. In the wake of increased U.S. complaints about tainted Chinese products, the Chinese government late Friday said it has suspended imports of chicken feet, pig ears and other animal products from seven U.S. companies. Beijing claimed the American meat had contaminants.
The spotlight on federal oversight is adding momentum to a renewed push by consumer groups to put the labeling law in place.
"When consumers hear about all these things in China, their tendency is to avoid things from China," said Chris Waldrop of the Consumer Federation of America. "But they can't because we don't have country of origin labeling, so they are left in the supermarket to their own devices."
The same experts point to several instances of mad cow disease in Canada as evidence of the need for stricter labeling.
But Regina Hildwine, director of food labeling and standards for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, says the labels will be "additional noise" on crowded packaging.
"There's a lot more information on a label that's more important for a consumer to understand, like nutrition facts," she said.
Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., said he will try to beat back language in a spending bill that would establish firm guidelines to begin the labeling in September 2008. LaHood is siding with the meatpacking companies and grocery chains.
"It's going to cause a lot of heartburn," he said.
The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, has said he would be open to writing a new law if all sides could agree. Without a compromise, though, he says he will leave it alone and let it begin in 2008.
Other lawmakers say that is not soon enough and are pushing for the requirement to become effective this year. Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said a must-pass spending bill could be an option to try that.
The law is a priority for lawmakers from the Midwest and northern Rockies, where smaller ranchers face heavy competition from Canada.
"Only by differentiating domestic beef from the rising tide of imported beef can our industry compete," said Bill Bullard, chief executive officer of R-CALF USA, a group that represents smaller independent producers.
On the Net:
Agriculture Department background on the law: http://www.ams.usda.gov/cool/
Grocery Manufacturers Association: http://www.gmabrands.com/
Consumer Federation of America: http://www.consumerfed.org/