(June 23) The House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee put a stop sign up for country-of-origin labeling regulations on meat, but proponents of the law have warned Congress to allow rulemaking to proceed during construction of mandatory regulations.

Mandatory regulations on country-of-origin labeling are scheduled to go into effect Sept. 30 of next year, affecting fruit, vegetables, peanuts, beef, lamb, pork and fish sold in the U.S. In the course of 12 public hearings conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the legislation, widespread opposition to the labeling law has been plainly evident among retailers and much of the livestock industry.

NO FUNDING FOR MEAT LABELING

On June 17, the subcommittee added text to an appropriations bill that read, “None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available by this act shall be used for the implementation of country-of-origin labeling for meat or meat products.”

The amendment was passed by voice vote in the subcommittee and will be forwarded to the full appropriations committee for consideration the week of June 22, said Taryn Fritz, press officer for Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, chairman of the subcommittee.

After that, the full House would have a chance to vote on the appropriations bill.

The Senate, which is considered more supportive of country-of-origin legislation, also must agree with the stipulation in its appropriations bill.

Whether or not the amendment is passed by the full House and Senate, it doesn’t appear to jeopardize implementation of mandatory fruit and vegetable labeling. However, it may portend legislative revisiting of the law itself, Bonilla said.

Andrew Harig, director of government relations for the Food Marketing Institute, Washington, D.C., said a legislative fix for the meat industry is “in the air.”

“Whether it gets spread out (to other commodities) is the question,” he said.

REPEAL IN THE WORKS?

He said the paperwork costs and the possibility of retailers dropping smaller growers are factors that might yet sway produce growers to advocate legislative repeal.

The House Agriculture Committee will hold hearings on country-of-origin labeling on June 26, and Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Washington, D.C., is expected to testify.

Some press reports indicate the hearing could be a springboard for repeal of the legislation.

Keira Franz, United’s director of legislative affairs, said United will argue for a tailored approach for fresh produce and one that is workable for the industry.

“We have provided significant comments on how they could implement the program in a way that they separate produce from meat,” she said.

In the case of country-of-origin regulations, she said a one-size-fits-all approach does not work.

DON’T FORGET

Ray Gilmer, director of the communications and education division of Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Orlando, said the association and other proponents of labeling will remind Congress why it passed country-of-origin legislation in the first place.

“We have to shore up support on the Hill, as well as give the USDA all the input they need,” Gilmer said.

He said recent conversations with USDA Agricultural Marketing Service officials have indicated that just about all of the challenges in coming up with appropriate rules for produce country of origin have been resolved.

“The last conversations we have had with AMS is that they are down to some pretty fine points. The framework for a workable produce rule is in place,” he said.

Kathy Means, vice president of the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., said the intent of the law would be hurt if meat was exempted.

“It would be a shame if the only people left labeling is the produce industry,” she said. “

It takes some of the oomph away from the consumer right to know.”

Means said more and more growers are now opposed to the country-of-origin law, in no small part because of complying with retailer requests for record keeping.

“As the suppliers are seeing what buyers need, they are reconsidering their support,” she said.