By LIBBY QUAID
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON - The House voted Wednesday to block the government from requiring labels that would tell shoppers from what country their meat comes.
Congress already had postponed the labeling from its original date of 2004 to September 2006. The House action would stop the Agriculture Department from spending money on the new requirement.
The postponement was part of a $100 billion spending bill for food and farm programs in the budget year that begins Oct. 1. The House passed the bill by a 408-18 vote Wednesday.
Western ranchers had counted on the labels to help sell their beef, Rep. Stephanie Herseth said.
''Instead, the large meatpackers have rallied to kill this program because they don't want American consumers to discover how much meat in the grocery case is actually imported,'' said Herseth, D-S.D.
Rep. Denny Rehberg, a rancher, said Texas cattle producers are fighting the labels because they do not want shoppers to know that the cattlemen buy cheap Mexican calves to fatten and sell in the United States.
''It's time we send a message to those who are standing in the way, and allow us the opportunity to tell the American consumer: born, raised and processed in America means something,'' said Rehberg, R-Mont.
Rehberg tried to amend the bill to let the labeling proceed as planned. The House refused on a 240-187 vote.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the House Agriculture Committee chairman, said the labels would do the opposite of what was intended, adding $10 per head of cattle to ranchers' costs. Industry estimates are that it could cost the industry as much as $4 billion in the first year.
''It will make our producers less competitive with foreign meat producers, not more competitive,'' said Goodlatte, R-Va.
Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, said labeling will raise beef prices for consumers because stores could be sued for mistakes in labeling.
Goodlatte has introduced legislation to repeal the labeling mandate for meat. Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., are planning similar legislation.
Congress passed country-of-origin labeling as part of the 2002 Farm Bill. The delay applies only to meat and meat products; labels went into effect in April for fish and shellfish.
The food labels apply to supermarkets and other retail stores but not to restaurants.
The 2005 Montana Legislature passed a law putting food labeling into effect in Montana on Oct. 1, 2006, if the federal government again delayed its labeling law.
The federal spending bill, which would provide about $100 billion for the Agriculture Department and Food and Drug Administration, would:
Cut nearly $6 million from the FDA's budget for next year because the White House directed acting administrator Lester Crawford not to testify before the panel. The cuts are in administrative costs, not drug safety, at FDA, which has an overall budget of $1.5 billion.
Allow consumers, pharmacists and wholesalers to buy cheaper prescription drug imports from Canada or other countries by keeping FDA from spending money to stop the drug sales.
Stop the slaughter of U.S. horses to feed customers in Europe and Asia. The bill would prohibit Agriculture Department inspections of horse meat to be shipped overseas for human consumption, which would have the effect of barring the slaughter.
Boost spending on food stamps by 16 percent to $40.7 billion. The Agriculture Department program has grown steadily, both because of recession and unemployment and because the government has signed up people who were not receiving food stamps even though they were eligible. Spending would also grow for school lunches and other nutrition programs.
Cut conservation spending by $37 million for a total of $794 million. Agriculture Department programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program pay farmers to help the environment by taking sensitive land out of production.
The Senate must pass its version of the spending bill, and a conference committee must resolve differences between the two versions before Congress can vote on a final version.