(Dec. 4) Hold that delay.

That’s the message of a coalition of 165 farm and consumer groups known as Americans for Country of Origin Labeling who wrote President Bush Dec. 3 to urge him to intervene with congressional leaders to stop the planned delay in implementing mandatory country-of-origin labeling for certain agricultural products, including fresh produce.

Meanwhile, George Chartier, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service, said Dec. 3 that the AMS would continue to take comments and write regulations for mandatory country of origin labeling.

“We received no direction from Congress to not continue and rulemaking will continue unless directed otherwise,” he said.

Congress hasn’t approved the fiscal 2004 agriculture spending bill, which contains the legislation blocking the labeling law, but the Senate and House may do so the week of Dec. 8.

One Washington lobbyist said the language in the omnibus spending bill strikes 2004 as the implementation date and inserts “2006, except for farm-raised fish and wild fish, which shall be Sept. 30, 2004.”

However, the lobbyist noted that Congress made this change only to Section 285 of the farm bill, which provides the date that country-of-origin labeling shall apply to the retail sale of a covered commodity.

While industry leaders have asked the USDA to extend the comment period for rulemaking, he said Congress did not change the deadline for USDA to issue regulations; Section 284 states that not later than Sept. 30 the agriculture secretary shall promulgate regulations as are necessary to implement country of origin labeling.

The proposed regulations put forward in October and the comments that will be accepted by the USDA through the end of December will serve as the basis for the final rules expected to be issued next year, the lobbyist said.

The language of the law suggests a final rule in 2004, with the delay in enforcement until 2006 — providing the law is not further changed or repealed in the meantime.

Dow Jones Commodity News reported Dec. 3 that House Agriculture Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R.-Va., said Congress will begin working on a voluntary country-of-origin program next year. A spokesman for Goodlatte’s Capitol Hill office could not be reached for comment on Dec. 4.

Robert Guenther, vice president of government relations for the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Washington, D.C., said Dec. 4 he had not heard rumors of congressional hearings yet but said United would be involved in the process of developing a cost-efficient country-of-origin labeling system.