(July 26) Soundly rejecting an alternative that attempted to preserve and perfect a mandatory country-of-origin labeling program for meat and produce, the House Agriculture Committee passed the Food Promotion Act of 2004 by voice vote and submitted the voluntary labeling plan to the full House for consideration.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said he intends to seek action on the legislation in September. After that, the Senate must pass its version of the measure before it can become law.

Prospects for that were much brighter after July 22, but far from certain.
“There is not a lot of support of the mandatory program, and with more and more questions that come up about the impact of it, the less support there is,” said John Motley, senior vice president of government and public affairs for the Food Marketing Institute, Washington, D.C.

Still, Senate action on the legislation will occur only if it is attached to a larger bill, Motley said.

“You won’t see it considered as a stand-alone bill, but with whatever is strong enough to pull it,” he said.

A substitute amendment offered by Rep. Dennis Rehberg, R-Mont., sought to replace the voluntary country-of-origin law with a mandatory program with less burdensome rules than the original labeling law passed in the 2002 farm bill.

Rehberg’s amendment, failing by 32-16 vote, would have required the U.S. Department of Agriculture to use existing records such as inventory, tax records or PACA records to verify that any person who prepares, stores, handles or distributes a covered commodity for retail sale is complying with the law, said Jason Begger, legislative assistant for Rehberg.

Bryan Silbermann, president of the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., said he was pleased the voluntary country-of-origin bill was passed without the substitute amendment.

Silbermann said the Rehberg amendment would have left many questions and reopened USDA rule making.

“It was very messy, and that’s why it was defeated,” he said.