Natural Foods Merchandiser

Farm Bill Favors Label Disclosure; Fish Get Focus

The politics of the farm bill fight are never dull, and this year was no different. Along with agribusiness subsidies, price supports and concerns about food safety, the debate in Congress tried to reel in the labeling requirements on farm-raised and wild-caught seafood.

Broad legislation that extends federal agricultural support programs is debated in Congress and enacted every five years. The farm bill always contains a host of hotly debated items such as crop subsidies, price supports for dairy farmers, food stamps, wastewater treatment, disaster aid, animal rights and food exports to Cuba. But things got even stickier this year, in the wake of Sept. 11, as several legislators pushed for country-of-origin labeling for meat, fruit, vegetables and seafood.

The seafood provision was written by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and built on Sen. Paul Wellstone's, D-Minn., country-of-origin labeling amendment, which requires retailers to inform consumers whether food was produced domestically or abroad. But instead of just requiring retailers to identify where seafood was caught, Stevens' provision would also require products to be labeled as wild or farmed.

Wellstone's country-of-origin amendment has drawn support from producers and attacks from retailers. Vegetable, meat and fish producers support the idea because the measure provides them an extra market distinction in a time of intense national pride. Retailers represented by the Food Marketing Institute oppose passage because the statute would place enforcement at the retail level, opening store owners up to liability.

The heightened labeling requirements for seafood haven't drawn direct attacks. If passed, they might highlight the issues surrounding fish farms, and could help sales at natural products stores. Most members of the industry eschew farm-raised fish (see "Sustainable Salmon Supporters Fight An Upstream Battle," NFM, March 2002) and sell wild or sustainably harvested products when possible.

Both the House and Senate versions of the farm bill contain country-of-origin language, but only the Senate bill extends the provision to farmed or wild-harvested status. At press time, the two sides were meeting in committee to determine a final version.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 4/p. 12

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