(Oct. 2) Taking measure of industry opinion about a divisive topic, the House Agriculture Livestock and Horticulture Subcommittee queried two industry leaders on their differing views of mandatory country-of-origin labeling.

Tucked into the 2002 farm bill, USDA-regulated labeling is set to take effect by Sept. 30, 2004, unless it is derailed by congressional action before then.

The subcommittee hearing, which took place Oct. 1, featured statements by several panelists representing a spectrum of agriculture interests, including food processors and industry leaders from the world of peanuts, fish and fruits and vegetables.

Panelists were questioned on their views of consumer demand for country of origin labeling. In turn, panelists questioned congressmen on the possibility of a legislative fix.

Members of Congress found mixed opinions in industry testimony about the issue.

After the hearing, industry participants and members of Congress agreed that the next step depends on the proposed final regulations for mandatory labeling, expected from the U.S. Department of Agriculture within weeks.

While Mike Stuart, president of the Orlando-based Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, represents an association that has supported mandatory country-of-origin labeling, John McClung, manager of the Texas Produce Association, Mission — representing a group that now opposes labeling — said afterward that the differences between their positions were not that great.

McClung said his association, which supported country-of-origin labeling a year ago and recently reversed its position because of concerns about the costs of labeling and retail resistance, does not adamantly oppose a more reasonable country-of-origin labeling plan.

“The one point that Mike made he is dead right about is that the law is not that prescriptive,” he said, indicating that the USDA could make the law more workable than the voluntary guidelines which were issued last October.

While not citing any statistic, McClung said that consumers’ demand for country-of-origin information is not as strong as their demand for high quality produce at affordable prices.

“The consumer does have a right to know, but the consumer doesn’t really care,” he said.

McClung said it may be possible to create a legislative fix, similar to the one recently offered by Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., a member of the committee.

That piece of legislation would forbid retail requirements for third-party audits.

Even so, McClung said his board — nearly all of whom have business interests in Mexico as well as Texas — felt that retail resistance to the mandatory law was working against it.

He told the subcommittee that retailers’ elaborate and complicated demands for third-party verification and hold-harmless agreements from suppliers relating to country of origin were disconcerting.