WASHINGTON — More than 100 cowboy hat adorned cattle producers who trekked to Washington, D.C., this week from 21 states were dealt a small victory in their fight to save country of origin labeling.

Three hours after the 108th Congress opened for election-year business on Tuesday, Senators voted to block passage of the government’s $328 billion annual appropriations bill, which includes language delaying the labeling law.

A two-thirds majority is required to end cloture, or debate, on the issue, but only 48 senators were apparently ready to move forward on the spending bill this week. There will likely be another vote on the bill within the next few days, according to Congressional sources

Senate Democrats, and a small number of Republicans, had warned of roadblocks if language delaying country of origin labeling for two years was included in the government spending bill for the 2004 fiscal year. Other issues of contention by Senate Democrats include provisions relaxing both overtime rules for some white collar workers and the rules regarding media consolidation.

A fly-in by more than a dozen commodity and consumer groups was scheduled this week to insure their objections to the language inserts into the appropriations bill by the House was taken seriously. Members of the groups, which include the National Farmers Union, R-Calf, the Organization for Competitive Markets, and the Florida Fresh Fruit and Vegetables Association, spent Tuesday morning in meetings with their local Senators.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle led the effort to stall the bill, and give Congress time to "fix" the issues of contention.

With 39 Senate Democrats, five Republicans and one Independent voting to stall passage of the appropriations bill, the groups that participated in the fly-in were rewarded for their efforts. Earlier that morning, the group was encouraged to get their message out to all 100 Senate offices before the up or down vote took place.

Bill Bullard, chief executive officer of R-Calf, based in Billings, Mont., told dozens of his members that flew in for this week’s vote: "You are here today to protect your industry. Let your congressmen and women know that those groups that are fighting country of origin labeling do not represent the interests of production agriculture."

"The real issue is about money. A lot of companies are making money importing lower quality products, and selling them to consumers who often falsely believe they are buying U.S. products," says Tom Buis, vice president of government relations for the National Farmers Union. "We can’t find anyone, unless you survey the meat packers, that do not want country of origin labeling."

Buis says the need for labeling is even more evident since the December discovery in Washington of a Canadian-born cow infected with BSE, or mad cow disease. "We lost 20 percent of the value of our cattle virtually overnight because we didn’t have a way to differentiate our products with those of other countries," he says. "We all take the hit because we can’t differentiate with country of origin labeling."

"Survey after survey, and poll after poll, show that consumers care where their food comes from, and a voluntary labeling system won’t work," says Buis. "How many companies do you know that are importing food products from the Southern hemisphere that want to label the origin of those products."

Brother David Andrews, executive director for the National Catholic Rural Life Conference in Des Moines, Iowa, adds, "Unfortunately, undemocratic backroom political mechanisms and some mendacious statements made by leaders at USDA have managed to derail what is clearly desired and supported by farmers, ranchers and eaters. At our organization, we have a statement, ‘Eating is a moral act.’ To manipulate, lie and steal the people’s right to food and to a food policy arrived at through the democratic system is immoral."

Buis says, "The President is proposing we put a man on Mars. We’d better first learn how to put a label on our food. It should be much less complicated."

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com