COUNTRY-OF-ORIGIN FOES GIRD FOR BATTLE IN '99

WASHINGTON -- Country-of-origin labels died a quiet death when Congress finally passed its $500 billion omnibus spending bill last month. But instead of mourning, food retailers and wholesalers say they are preparing for the issue to rise again next year.For, already, at least food-producer groups, including the National Cattlemen's Beef Association here, and the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association,

WASHINGTON -- Country-of-origin labels died a quiet death when Congress finally passed its $500 billion omnibus spending bill last month. But instead of mourning, food retailers and wholesalers say they are preparing for the issue to rise again next year.

For, already, at least food-producer groups, including the National Cattlemen's Beef Association here, and the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, Orlando, say they plan to take up the labeling fight again in 1999. Such groups have called country-of-origin labeling an enhanced marketing tool for their products.

Food-retailer and food-wholesaler groups -- including the National Grocers Association, Reston, Va.; Grocery Manufacturers of America here; and Food Distributors International, Falls Church, Va. -- have all opposed the legislation, arguing that such labels are nothing but a costly burden that eventually will be paid by the consumer. It's that message that the Food Marketing Institute here plans to use next year to educate an expanding number of members of Congress, said John Motley, senior vice president of government and public affairs.

"I think we're going to have to do a better job making Congress members on a broad band understand the issue," he said, adding that the effort will expand the FMI's education campaign to include appropriations committee members, in addition to those representing agriculture.

Country-of-origin labeling became a hot appropriations-season issue this fall when it was dropped during a contentious conference-session fight. The conference session had been aimed at reconciling the House and Senate agriculture appropriations bills.

The eventual compromise bill blocked country-of-origin labeling but called for studies on what the effects of it would be. The compromise bill itself was later vetoed by the President who said the bill provided for insufficient funding for struggling farmers. Later the compromise bill, intact, was included as part of the $500 billion omnibus spending bill approved Oct. 21.

"Hopefully, we've learned our lessons and next time we'll be better prepared," Motley said of the last-minute funding battle. He said that next year, the FMI plans to invite more key agriculture and appropriations committee members into supermarkets to explain the effect of country-of-origin labeling on retailers. "I think we can make a fairly convincing case that labeling isn't going to help the people they're trying to help," said Motley. Instead, he said, "we'd much rather sit down with the grower or the producer and figure out a solution" to increasingly competitive prices and a tough market.

At the National Grocer's Association, Tom Wenning, vice president and general counsel, said his group will also be concentrating on education next year. "As wholesalers and retailers, we're going to continue to educate Congress members on the burdens of country-of-origin labeling," he said.

For the NGA, much of that education will come at the grassroots level -- with grocers calling their representatives, an approach that went into high gear at the association as Congress went into its extended homestretch.

Additionally, Wenning said, the NGA will work next year to provide information to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the General Accounting Office -- which will be studying the effect of country-of-origin labels for meats and produce respectively. These studies were established as a last-minute compromise during the conference session when the two Democratic country-of-origin labeling proposals -- one for meats and the other for produce -- were dropped.