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USDA unveils 'costly' food labeling regulations

Consumers will likely pay more for their food if new labeling regulations take effect next year, agriculture officials say. The U.S.

Consumers will likely pay more for their food if new labeling regulations take effect next year, agriculture officials say.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued proposed rules Monday for country of origin labeling, a mandatory labeling program that would distinguish between foreign and domestic foods.

In the 203-page proposal, the USDA says the labeling program would cost farmers, processors and grocers $4 billion to implement in the first year.

Kenneth Clayton, associate administrator of the department's Agricultural Marketing Service, told the Associated Press the costs would likely be passed on to consumers.

"If the USDA numbers are right, it's scary," said Paul Strandberg, a project manager at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.


The state agriculture department supports a volunteer labeling program, Strandberg said.

"A mandatory system -- that's not quite as clear given the current situation," he said. "We basically want to make sure that it doesn't backfire."

In its initial estimate last year, the USDA said the labeling system would create about $2 billion in costs.

Some farm-state lawmakers are criticizing Monday's report, saying the USDA was closer to the system's costs the first time.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman released a "ridiculous" cost estimate to derail a program she doesn't want to see implemented, said U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.

Congressional auditors have reported that the latest cost estimate is not accurate, Dorgan said.

"I am skeptical to put it mildly," he said. "It seems to me that the USDA is just caving in to corporate interests on this."

The USDA "has been dragging its feet and trying in every way possible to avoid implementing something that is already law," Dorgan said.


In the 2002 farm bill, Congress required that the labels start appearing on food products by next September.

Country of origin labeling was approved for meat, vegetables and fruit.

The labels are intended to enable consumers to track the origins of their food.

The USDA's cost estimates don't take into account the economic benefit to rural America, U.S. Rep. Earl Pomeroy said in a press statement.

"Obviously that's the whole purpose," Strandberg said. "That U.S. consumers will want to buy U.S."

The House has passed a 2004 agricultural appropriations bill that prohibits funding the labeling system's administration.

The Senate may vote this week on a resolution that would resurrect funding for country of origin labeling, Dorgan said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jeff Zent at (701) 241-5526

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