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House panel denies USDA label money

(Wednesday, June 18, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- WASHINGTON (AP) -- A House panel is reining in a program that would force meatpackers and retailers to tag their products with labels describing where the meat came from.

Acknowledging the food industry's concerns that the labels could be costly and cumbersome, the House Appropriations agriculture subcommittee voted Tuesday to deny funding for the Agriculture Department to carry out the program. The decision was made on a unanimous voice vote.

``It's essential that we provide time for Congress to properly evaluate this issue,'' said Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, the subcommittee chairman. ``Before any decision is made, the producers, processors, retailers and meat industry must have the opportunity to consider the ramifications.''

President Bush signed the labeling program into law last year as part of a $190 billion farm bill. The Agriculture Department estimates it would cost $1.9 billion to keep careful records on where the animals were born, raised and slaughtered.

Janet Riley, a spokeswoman for American Meat Institute, said Tuesday's vote gives the industry hope that Congress will repeal the requirement.

On the other hand, supporters have been urging the Agriculture Department to issue a final rule forcing companies to carry out the program.

``Implementation was specifically put off until fall of 2004, specifically to allow thorough review and consideration of how to implement it,'' said Arthur Jaeger, assistant director for the Consumer Federation of America. ``They've had plenty of time to do it.''

Defending the labeling requirement, Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., said the labels could have helped U.S. and Canadian officials quickly search for cattle linked to a cow infected with mad cow disease in Canada.

``With the case of mad cow disease in Canada threatening to kick the legs from under consumer confidence in beef, this is irresponsible,'' said Johnson, who pushed to add the labeling program to last year's farm bill. ``The subcommittee should think about whether they are representing Canadian ranchers or American consumers.''

Last month, Canada found that an animal slaughtered in January was sick with mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Officials spent days inspecting the herd the cow came from to ensure that none of the other animals had the brain-wasting disease.

The case revealed that the United States, which trades meat and cattle extensively with Canada, has no system in place that would allow investigators to trace meat quickly from the slaughterhouse to the farm.

Canadian scientists have said they believe no other animals were infected.

The Committee prohibited USDA from spending any money on the Conservation Security Program, value-added grants, renewable energy grants, and rural firefighters. It also diminished money for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

See USDA Country of Origin Labeling: http://www.ams.usda.gov/cool/