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Politics and Money to Blame for Killing Consumer-Friendly Food Labeling Program

Oct. 27, 2005

Politics and Money to Blame for Killing Consumer-Friendly Food Labeling Program

Statement of Wenonah Hauter, Director of Public Citizen’s Food Program

The long battle over country-of-origin labeling (COOL) has reached a disappointing finish, with a decision last night by the House-Senate Conference Committee on the agriculture appropriations bill (H.R. 2744) to wave a white flag of surrender to the food and grocery industries. The committee effectively killed a mandatory program that would require labels on foods sold in grocery stores to state where and how the food was raised or produced.

As is typical of this Congress, this final move was made behind closed doors. Even though Public Citizen tried to attend this so-called public meeting, no one who was standing in line to attend the meeting was allowed to enter the room. Despite polls showing that consumers overwhelmingly support mandatory labeling, lawmakers have killed the idea through budgetary gimmicks because they favor a weaker, voluntary labeling program. A mandatory program would not have cost the government any money; that cost would have been borne by the food industry.

As outlined in the recent Public Citizen report Tabled Labels, available at https://www.citizen.org/sites/default/files/cool.pdf, big agribusiness used millions of dollars in lobbying expenditures and campaign contributions, and a network of Washington insiders with close connections to the Bush administration and Congress, to thwart COOL.This latest effort to kill COOL was led by U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas), who has received more than $167,000 from COOL opponents in the past three election cycles, making him their top beneficiary. The Food Marketing Institute, which represents the grocery industry, and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which represents the meat industry, have been the biggest opponents of mandatory COOL. It is apparent that our elected lawmakers’ main concern is to protect industry, not consumers.

While the appropriations bill delays mandatory COOL for meat to September 2008, this move effectively kills the program because this new implementation date is beyond the expiration date – 2007 – of the 2002 Farm Bill that originally mandated it.

Rules for voluntary COOL are already in effect, yet most consumers are not getting information about where their food was produced. For nearly four years, Congress has stalled on this issue. Most people can earn a college degree in four years, but apparently it’s not enough time for Congress to institute a simple program that would have been useful to every consumer in the United States. Congress has failed us again.