From: Susan Salisbury, The Palm Beach Post, Fla.
Published November 6, 2004 12:00 AM

Senator's Defeat Hurts Country-of-Origin Labeling for Food

Nov. 6—With the defeat this week of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, country-of-origin labeling for beef, pork and produce has lost one of its most powerful and committed supporters, say observers on both sides of the issue.

"His departure is going to change the landscaping on this," said Ray Gilmer, spokesman for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association in Maitland.

Farming groups and consumer advocates have long pushed for a mandatory law that would tell shoppers where their groceries came from. Forces opposed to the law, which was signed in 2002, pressured lawmakers earlier this year to delay its implementation until September 2006.

Meanwhile, those same groups, including food retailers and processors, are pushing for a voluntary version of the law, known as COOL.

"Tom is somebody who led the efforts in the Senate against change in the law and who is going to be sorely missed by the other side," said John Motley, senior vice president of the Food Marketing Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group representing major supermarket chains such as Publix, Winn-Dixie and Albertsons.

Daschle, D-S.D., was defeated for reelection Tuesday by former Rep. John Thune, a Republican. Thune also favors COOL, sources say, but has not championed the idea as Daschle has.

Motley said the Food Marketing Institute supported Thune in the race because he agreed with retailers on many issues, such as an increased income tax deduction for companies that donate food to charities.

FMI and other trade groups such as the Food Processors Association view COOL as a marketing tool and believe participation should be voluntary.

That won't work, said Tom Buis, vice president for government relations at the National Farmers Union in Washington. Retailers who sign up to participate in a voluntary COOL would face fines for violations, but those who don't sign up wouldn't, he said.

"It's like a voluntary speed limit," Buis said.

As of Sept. 30, retailers must label seafood by country of origin.

That portion was implemented because of pressure from Alaska and its salmon industry, but the fight over produce, meat and pork continues.

"The voluntary bill passed the House, and we're waiting to see what happens in the Senate," Gilmer said.

J. Luis Rodriguez, a spokesman for Florida Farmers Inc. in Lake Worth, said he's worked for the law for years and isn't giving up, even though Daschle will be gone. Florida has had a produce-only labeling law on the books since 1979.

"COOL is a consumer-driven initiative and sooner or later it will be implemented," he said. "Retailers and meat packers can only buy so many politicians."

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