by Marc Kovac

Capital Bureau Chief

Columbus -- Both sides worked to sway lawmakers about the merits and drawbacks of food labels that note the products' country of origin.

Proponents of the label told members of the Senate's agriculture committee last week that the labels are needed to improve security and provide information desired by consumers. Opponents, however, have said the labels will prove costly for customers, likely leading to higher grocery bills.

Senate Concurrent Resolution 6, offered by Sen. Tom Roberts, D-Dayton, would push the federal government to fully fund and implement country of origin labeling requirements that were part of the 2002 Farm Bill.

Beef, lamb, pork, fish, perishable agricultural commodities (frozen and fresh fruits and vegetables) and peanuts are supposed to be covered, according to the resolution. But only labels on wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish have been implemented; Congress has delayed the remainder until September 2008.

Proponents of the measure, including members of the Ohio Farmers Union, told Senators that the labels are needed to improve food safety and allow producers to differentiate their products from those coming from outside of U.S. borders.

"With the recent melamine, pet food, hog and chicken scare, combined with the disclosure of Canada's 10th case of mad cow, we believe this is the right time to elevate this issue for the sake of farmers and consumers alike," said Joe Logan, president of the Ohio Farmers Union.

"It is almost impossible to differentiate our product from co-mingling of foreign beef," added Delaware County farmer David Hutchins.

But opponents, including the Ohio Grocers Association, said the labeling requirements will do nothing to improve food safety and it will increase food prices for customers.

In committee testimony, association President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Jackson said customers want safe, wholesome products -- something retailers already are providing. Instead of instituting country-of-origin labeling, proponents should be pushing Congress to improve food safety inspections.

"Country-of-origin labeling, in the eyes of the consumer, is a 'nice to know,' not a 'need to know,'" Jackson said. "And they're not willing to spend a lot of money for it. ... There's only one person that's going to pay for this, and that's the consumer."

Marc Kovac is the Dix Newspapers capital bureau chief. E-mail him at mkovac@dixcom.com.