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GAO refutes Bush over meat labeling

(Thursday, Sept. 11, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Jack Sullivan, Associated Press, 09/10/03: WASHINGTON - Government cost estimates of a new program that will require meat packages to be labeled with their countries of origin are "questionable and not well supported," congressional auditors said in a report released Wednesday.

The General Accounting Office report undermines an argument against the labeling requirements, which are set to take effect in September 2004.

Sens. Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson, both D-S.D., and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., said the GAO report is ammunition against House legislation that would cut off funds to the labeling program before it starts.

The Department of Agriculture estimated the cost of filing the paperwork for the first year of the program would be $1.9 billion. The GAO said the USDA estimates of cost and burden on industry "are questionable and not well supported."

The report said the USDA "could provide no documentation to support its estimates," and it assumed an hourly rate of $50 for processors to develop and keep a record system, which was more than double the hourly rates it used in recent estimates for other programs.

"This business about how this is expensive, how it involves complicated record-keeping is nothing more than scare talk on the part of those opposed to country of origin labeling," said Johnson.

A call to the USDA was not immediately returned.

The program's opponents include grocers, packinghouses and large livestock operations. They have claimed it is too cumbersome and costly.

Daschle, Johnson and Enzi said they will introduce a measure in the Senate that, if passed, will instruct their colleagues working on a compromise spending bill to strip the House measure from it.

"On shoes, they tell you what the country of origin is. On underwear they tell you what the country of origin is ... but I tell you those things that you wear can't hurt you nearly as much as the things you put in your body," Enzi said.

President Bush signed the labeling program into law last year as part of a $190 billion farm bill. In July, the House voted to prohibit money from being spent to implement the rules. The measure was included in a broader spending bill for the USDA and Food and Drug Administration.

Supporters say the program allows consumers to choose between domestic and foreign meat products.

Daschle said the rules will serve consumers by allowing them to know where their food was produced and will help ranchers by raising prices for meat produced in the United States.

The labeling is required for beef, lamb, pork and fish, perishable farm commodities and peanuts. The GAO report, which Johnson and Daschle requested last year, also found that seven of 10 U.S. trading partners require origin labeling for at least one of those goods.

The senators were joined at a news conference Wednesday by farmers holding blue signs that said "Keep COOL," for country of origin labeling. More than 200 members of the National Farmers Union are in Washington this week to lobby lawmakers to keep the labeling.