As the Senate prepares to vote this week on its version of the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) budget, Public Citizen argues that extensive lobbying by business of Washington insiders has helped defeat a consumer-friendly provision mandating country-of-origin labeling (COOL).
Mandatory country-of-origin labeling would require beef, pork, lamb, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, fish, and peanuts to be labeled with where they were raised, grown or produced.
Although the 2002 Farm Bill stipulated that the new program be implemented by September 2004, mandatory COOL has been postponed by Congress - where lawmakers are under intense pressure from the meat and grocery industries - for two years.
In June, the US House of Representatives voted to once again delay COOL's implementation for meat until 2007. Industry is strongly lobbying the Senate to either delay the funding for the USDA to work on COOL or turn it into a "voluntary" program.
Many are worried that the cost of implementation would be severe. The USDA estimates that mandatory COOL would cost the food industry as much as $3.9 billion to implement in the first year alone - costs that could be passed along to consumers or absorbed by producers and retailers in the low-profit food business, according to industry groups.
Outspoken opponents of the mandatory COOL law include the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), Wal-Mart, Cargill, Tyson Foods, the American Meat Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers of America.
But groups such as Private Citizen argue that the labeling law is in the consumer's interest.
"If you ask consumers, they'll tell you they want COOL, but it's apparent that Congress isn't listening," said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen's food program.
"We've already watched members of the House dismiss their constituents by voting to delay this important consumer act. We urge the Senate not to follow in their footsteps. Consumers deserve to know where their meat is produced, and in light of all the problems our food system faces on a daily basis, COOL would serve as a vital precautionary measure."
Public Citizen analyzed donations from 19 companies and trade associations, each of which has announced opposition to mandatory country-of-origin labeling and has registered to lobby against COOL. The pressure group claims that they have contributed a total of $12.6 million to candidates for Congress and in soft money to the Republican and Democratic parties since 2000.
These companies have focused their giving on 65 members of Congress who have sponsored a bill to replace the mandatory country-of-origin requirement with a voluntary one, which is considerably weaker and does not empower consumers with the right to know where their food is from. Instead, it offers industry a way to hide critical information from the public.
These 65 members, accounting for only 12 percent of Congress, have received 29 percent of contributions to candidates from the COOL foes.
"It is easy to understand how money works against consumers' interests in politics by considering that the COOL legislation made it through Congress with a strong show of support a few years ago, only to be corralled by a strong industry lobbying effort capped by a cornucopia of campaign cash," said Frank Clemente, director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch.
The issue of country-of-origin labeling has been bubbling away for decades. For more than 70 years, goods imported into the United States have been required to be labeled with the product's country of origin so that the ultimate consumer will know where it was produced. But certain products were exempted from the original labeling law.
The debate now is over whether these products should be covered by voluntary or mandatory regulations. But it would be wrong to assume that everyone in the US food industry is opposed to mandatory labeling.
In December, a coalition of 165 US food manufacturers and associations sent a letter to President Bush arguing that any delay of the mandatory country-of-origin labeling law is not supported by the overwhelming majority of US food manufacturers.
The coalition, called Americans for Country of Origin Labeling (ACOL), has urged the President to oppose Congressional efforts to delay country-of-origin labeling.