Many see the possible two-year labeling delay, which was included in the House version of the bill, as a more permanent setback for country of origin labeling, or COOL as it is commonly known. (The House is expected to pass the measure when it returns next week, while Senate vote is less certain.)

“There is simply no reasonable justification for this action," says Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. "This may be a win for the Bush Administration and the meat-packing cartel, but the people are losing on this one. Let there be no mistake about what this delay means.

“It means the Bush Administration wants to kill the COOL law, they just don' t want to do it before the presidential election because they know the majority of people in our nation want labeling.”

According to Daschle, the recent roadblock to COOL was decided behind closed doors. “Republicans met in private, denying Democratic members of the Appropriations Committee access to the meetings.”

Members of the House and Senate appropriations conference committee were faced with House and Senate agricultural spending bills that differed greatly on the future of the Country-of-Origin Labeling Law.

While the House bill delayed implementation of the law for one year, and stripped funding for the labeling law as it applies to meat and meat products, the Senate’s version of the agriculture appropriations bill included a Sense of the Senate Amendment asking that the Country of Origin Labeling Law be left alone.

The 2002 farm bill contains language requiring retailers to provide COOL on fresh fruits and vegetables, red meats, seafood, and peanuts beginning Sept. 30, 2004.

Among those vigorously protesting the two-year delay is Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., who co-authored the Sense of Senate Amendment continuing COOL. Johnson says he believes special interests have convinced the Majority leadership to delay implementation of COOL well beyond the timeframe permitted in the farm bill.

He calls the delay “tragic,” and says it was included in the appropriations bill “for those special interests that profit by camouflaging foreign meat and misleading American consumers."

"While I have many problems with USDA's proposed rule, the department has already addressed many concerns through the rulemaking process," Johnson says. "I firmly believe interested parties should be given the time the law provides them to work through their concerns with USDA.

“The rule and process are not perfect, but those concerned with COOL are making headway. Now is not the time to eliminate funding for this program."

Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif., says a delay could be the first step towards repealing the labeling law entirely.

"At a time when people have died or been taken ill due to the hepatitis A outbreak in Pennsylvania linked to imported produce, Congress should lead the way in ensuring our health and safety rather than taking actions to weaken these standards,” says Bono.

"It is a shame that the interests of the few have overcome the will of the majority. But, I can assure you that the fight is not yet over and I will continue to battle this new challenge with vigor," Bono says.

Dave Frederickson, president of the National Farmers Union, says, "It is a travesty that U.S. consumers' interests are losing out to pressure from the retailers, packers and processors, who all have aggressively fought this law since its inception."

The Organization for Competitive Markets apparently agrees, asking its members to take the battle to keep country of origin labeling to a new level.

“Country of Origin Labeling of food has precipitated a war,” says Fred Stokes, president of the organization and a cattle producer in Kemper County, Mississippi. “Food producers and consumers are on one side with the food cartels and their lackeys on the other. Regrettably, the leadership in our government has come down on the wrong side, as they cut back room deals to kill COOL.”

“This is a ‘no-brainer’,” says Stokes. “The merits of food labeling are patently obvious and public support for it is massive. Given the recent incidents of mad cow disease in Canadian beef and Hepatitis A in Mexican green onions, the case for COOL is overpowering. That this administration, leadership in congress and USDA are complicit in a massive campaign to distort, delay, deceive and ultimately kill this legislation should scare everyone.”

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com