WASHINGTON — The mad cow scare is taking its toll on the cattle industry. Foreign countries are banning U.S. beef imports. American meatpackers are laying off workers. And the industry predicts its lost sales will top $1 billion.
But mad cow disease also could help one group of cattle producers who long have wanted the government to require retailers to place a "country of origin" label on beef products. This would, these producers believe, give them a "made in the U.S.A." marketing advantage against meat processors and packers who mix U.S. and Canadian beef to make cheaper hamburger.
The issue will come to a head Jan. 20, when the Senate is scheduled to vote on a $328-billion omnibus spending bill that includes a provision to delay country-of-origin labeling, or COOL. In an effort to preserve the labeling regulation, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) is threatening to hold up the giant spending bill, which would endanger funding for a large part of the government as well as for a number of spending measures important to lawmakers in an election year.
"Given the concern on both sides of the aisle for country-of-origin labeling, especially now with the mad cow incident, I would not be surprised if a number of Republicans would join us in opposition to the omnibus as it's currently written," Daschle said last week.
The debate began several years ago, when consumer advocates started lobbying for all kinds of labeling on food -- from nutritional content to the country of origin. The idea of requiring cattlemen to tell consumers where their cows came from was always a long shot, opposed by big producers who argued it would be a costly bureaucratic nightmare to enforce.
Then came the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that left Congress lurching for ways to protect U.S. interests and searching for ideas that could convince a nervous public that its food supply was safe from possible tampering. The following month, anthrax-laced letters forced an evacuation of Congress.
"There was a sea change" among lawmakers, said Ray Gilmer, director of public affairs for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Assn., which has advocated labeling. In that climate, Congress embraced COOL as part of the 2001 farm bill.
Suddenly, giving consumers a little bit more information at a time of heightened crisis seemed like a good idea, even if labels that said "U.S.A." were an uncertain guarantee of food safety. Labeling for meat, fish, fruits, vegetables and peanuts became law, to take effect in September.
However, the Bush administration has pushed for a two-year delay that both sides acknowledge is tantamount to slow death. The White House is sensitive to concerns from processors and grocers about costs and complications of requiring retailers to differentiate products by their country of origin.
In an effort to save COOL, advocates are arguing that the mad cow scare -- which began Dec. 23 with an announcement by U.S. Department of Agriculture officials that a Holstein had been diagnosed with bovine spongiform encephalopathy -- has pushed consumer sentiment to their side.
The cow was later determined to have been born in Canada, which producers argue shows the benefits of marketing their products as "Made in the U.S.A." Proponents of labeling believe that U.S. consumers will favor products made here.
Under the law that was to take effect in September, the actual wording of the label would be left to the retailer's discretion.
At least one proponent of COOL, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), has said he would not vote against the omnibus bill over the issue of food labeling. And with many senators eager to pass a bill that analysts say has more pork than meat, opponents doubt that Daschle's threat will succeed.
"For the omnibus to be defeated, it would mean for all senators the defeat of their pork projects," said one industry insider. "This is much ado about nothing."
The issue showcases an increasingly bitter dispute between independent cattle producers and feeders and the mega-processors that have come to dominate the business of beef. Like most industries, including automobile manufacturers and book publishers, agriculture has gone global. This time, the independent ranchers are hoping that consumers, worried about mad cow disease from Canada or the hepatitis-contaminated green onions from Mexico that killed three and infected 600 in November, will tip the balance in their favor.
"This is the most optimistic I've ever been, and I've been fighting this for 30 years," said Lee Pitts, executive editor of the industry's Livestock Market Digest. "The consumer will end up being our best friend. If you think it's problematic to be dependent on Mideast oil, wait and see what happens when we are dependent on other countries for food."
Food labeling is gaining converts in other quarters. Gilmer, who represents the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Assn. in a coalition of groups supporting COOL, said Florida has country-of-origin labeling for imported produce, a law enacted to help state growers compete with farmers in Mexico. "After NAFTA in 1993, Mexico came on with its winter vegetables," said Gilmer, "This is a Holy Grail for growers in Florida."
No matter what happens to food labeling for peanuts, fruits and vegetables and meats, there will be no delay on labeling for fish. Sources say that Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) won an exclusion for the fisheries industry, which favors labeling.