Officials Call for Food Country-of-Origin Labeling

Article excerpt

The growing threat of bioterrorism in the United States has proven the need for country-of-origin labeling to demonstrate the safety of the country's food supply, according to Oklahoma agriculture officials.

Dennis Howard, the state secretary of agriculture, told attendees at the Oklahoma Farmers Union Convention in Oklahoma City that the threat of bioterrorism and the prospect that terrorists may try to contaminate America's food supply have made country-of-origin labeling a priority.

"We've been complacent, but the events of 9-11 have woken America up," he said.

A country-of-origin labeling provision for fruits and vegetables was included in the just-passed House version of the federal farm bill and members of the Senate plan to add a clause addressing meat, according to Terry Detrick, vice president of the Oklahoma Farmers Union.

"Our consumers need to know when they go to the grocery store just exactly where their food came from," he said.

Even if foreign food product has not been contaminated by terrorists, those products may pose other risks, Howard said.

"Why should we allow food to come into America that's grown with chemicals that are banned in America?" he asked.

Due to trade agreements passed in recent years, Howard said grocery shelves have filled with foreign-raised food products.

"We've had an invasion into this country of foreign food products," he said.

But few consumers are aware of that fact and they won't be without a labeling law, Howard said.

He blamed the lack of a labeling law on a handful of large companies that have fought congressional passage.

"When you go to the grocery store can you find a `made in the USA' label (on food)? No. The grocers associations, the multinationals will not let us do that," Howard said.

He noted that some companies, such as Pfizer, are protesting the U.S. Department of Agriculture's temporary ban on the import of animal proteins from countries where Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), or "mad cow" disease, has been detected.

"If we can't stop BSE blood meal and bone meal from mad cow countries in Europe coming into America, that's a sad thing for America, folks," Howard said.

The secretary of agriculture said that passage of a "made in Oklahoma" labeling law for the state's food products would be his "number one" goal during the 2002 legislative session.

On the federal front, Detrick said passage of a country-of- origin labeling law appears likely. The Oklahoma Farmers Union and other groups have lobbied for a labeling law for years. "We think we're on the right track," Detrick said.

However, not all attendees at the convention agreed that a labeling law was needed.

"We believe there's quite a cost and a burden to country-of- origin labeling," said Jon Caspers, an official with the National Pork Producers Council.

He said the difficulty of keeping foreign-raised meat separate from domestically raised meat would be very difficult and expensive for packers, noting that Canada provides a great deal of beef and pork processed in the United States.

Caspers also said there's no need for a mandatory law.

"If you want to label things `Oklahoma raised' or `U.S. producers,' there's nothing to prevent that," Caspers said. …