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WASHINGTON - The U.S. Senate on Thursday voted 58-36 to oppose efforts in the House to effectively exempt meat products from country-of-origin labeling rules.
"If we can decide the difference between choice and prime, we can decide the difference between Mexico and the United States," said Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. "This may be one of the single most important consumer bills that our Congress is going to take up in this session."
The House voted 208-193 last July to bar the Agriculture Department from proceeding with rulemaking for the meat labeling law, approved by Congress as part of a 2002 farm bill.
The two chambers must come to a common position on the label law when they negotiate a final version of the agriculture spending bill.
John Motley, s.v.p. of the Food Marketing Institute, called the decision "a step backwards for the very cattlemen this program is supposed to benefit."
He cited a recent survey which found that 62 percent of the nation's producers oppose the law in its current form and want it changed or repealed. FMI commissioned the survey by Wilson Research Strategies, which released the results in mid-October.
"Researchers at Iowa State University estimate that COOL will increase the cost of U.S. pork production by 10 percent and lead more consumers to buy less expensive poultry products," Motley said, citing the 2003 study "Impact of Mandatory Country of Origin Labeling of U.S. Pork Exports."
"COOL will undermine the market for meat in North America, where products are moved freely across borders. The law requires labels to declare each country on meat from livestock that spent time in multiple countries (e.g., born in Mexico, raised in the U.S., slaughtered in Canada). To limit the confusion, retailers will source products from as few countries as possible and, where feasible, from a single country -- and not necessarily the U.S. -- thereby undermining the law's intent to promote sales of U.S. products.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said the Agriculture Department has consistently overestimated potential costs because it has relied on estimates from processors and retailers, which strongly oppose the legislation, according to an Associated Press report.
The department last month said the new law could cost up to $4 billion in the first year, largely from procedures required for labeling livestock origins.