(Jan. 26) The proponents of country-of-origin labeling — notably the National Farmer’s Union — made a strong statement in mid-January. The country-of-origin debate is not over.

Although the advocacy group ultimately lost the legislative battle to strip language from the omnibus appropriation bill that will delay mandatory country-of-origin labeling by two years, it proved the issue still has political clout.

A National Farmers Union poll released Jan. 19 during a press conference call with Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., packed a public relations wallop.

The group organized visits to all 100 Senate offices to hand-deliver the poll, using both farmers and consumers as the messengers.

In a sample of 900 likely voters, the key findings were that 82% of Americans think food should be labeled with country-of-origin information and that 81% would be willing to pay a few cents more for food products grown or raised in the U.S.

Tom Stenzel, president of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, said the opinion poll supports efforts in the food industry to implement a cost-effective voluntary country-of-origin labeling system.

However, he believes the poll failed to communicate to survey respondents the billions of dollars in costs of mandatory labeling regulations.

Meanwhile, associations for the nation’s produce, beef, pork and seafood producers, along with food retailers and wholesalers, repeated their desire to craft a program on voluntary labeling.

In mid-January, United was joined by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Pork Producers Council, the National Fisheries Institute, the Food Marketing Institute and the National Grocers Association as participants in a coming labeling summit, which is expected “very soon.”

But advocates of mandatory country-of-origin labeling, as written in the 2002 farm bill, haven’t thrown in the towel.

Current events, particularly relating to the mad cow disease, could work in favor of creating a consumer perception that mandatory labeling is needed.

The onus is on food industry leaders to put forward a credible voluntary labeling plan.

The formation of that plan should be conducted in open meetings that are inclusive of consumers, producers and the press.

But the food industry has its work cut out for it to convince the public that an industry-driven voluntary labeling system will deliver origin information to consumers every time they look for it.

After all, voluntary labeling has been in effect for more than 15 months, but consumers remain in the dark on the origin of the vast majority of their produce and other perishables.

Why? Because the food industry, particularly retailers, has chosen to ignore voluntary guidelines.

If consumers are to get this information, it will have to be mandated by government. Congress, in passing the 2002 farm bill, did just that, agreeing that consumers have the right to know.

But too many on Capitol Hill have bowed to political pressure, backing off their labeling stance. Those in Congress, like those in the food industry, need to realize that consumers are the real bosses.