(March 15) WASHINGTON, D.C. — Produce groups are lobbying hard to make sure provisions benefiting produce remain in the final farm bill now being negotiated between the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Both houses have passed farm bills that differ in several areas so House and Senate farm legislative leaders, including Sens. Tom Daschle, D-S.D. and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. Larry Combest, R-Texas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, and a dozen other key lawmakers, are huddling in a conference committee to iron out a final bill that can be sent to President Bush.

Bush is expected to sign a bill into law, even though the White House has signaled it does not like either version. However, the White House is seeking changes in the conference committee, and that may prolong negotiations past Easter.

A number of produce groups, particularly from Florida, are pushing hard to make sure the country-of-origin labeling provision isn’t eliminated at the last minute. Conference committees are notorious for last-minute deals cut by lawmakers into order to get an acceptable bill.

In a letter to Combest, produce and consumer groups urged the lawmakers to “support mandatory country of origin labeling for produce” and oppose efforts to weaken the labeling.

FOR AND AGAINST

Among the groups pushing for the labeling are the American Farm Bureau Federation, Park Ridge, Ill.; U.S. Apple Association, Vienna, Va.; National Potato Council, Englewood, Colo.; Texas Vegetable Association Inc., Mission; Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Orlando; Northwest Horticultural Council, Yakima, Wash.; and California Fresh Tomato Growers Exchange, Fresno.

On the other side, importers and retail groups, such as the Food Marketing Institute, have taken strong stands against the labeling. They argue that the labeling is costly, that there is no demand from consumers for such labeling and that consumers rank labeling low on their list of concerns.

FIGHT TO KEEP OTHER PROVISIONS

Although the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Alexandria, Va., has not endorsed country-of-origin labeling, it is lobbying to keep other produce provisions in the bill. In all, these provisions provide about $1 billion in benefits to the industry and include more government purchases of produce, export promotion money, a school lunch pilot project and a domestic produce promotion program, along with research funds and more money to keep out foreign plant pests and diseases.

“I think most of these items will remain in the final bill,” said Robert Guenther, vice president of United.

The White House says it does not like country-of-origin labeling and is unhappy with the subsidy levels for program crops and with the overall cost of the farm bill. The bills will cost from $73 billion to $76 billion.

The White House released a report from an outside source that said the bill might exceed federal budget agreements by several billions of dollars.

The U.S. Apple Association has carried out its own lobbying effort to make sure Congress retains $100 million in the bill to cover heavy market losses in the apple business.