WASHINGTON -- Amid concerns about the safety of pet food ingredients and catfish from China, consumers and even a few members of Congress are wondering why there isn't a law that requires merchants to label where food comes from.
The short answer: There is. And there has been since 2002.
The more complicated answer is that what Congress passes, Congress can take away. The requirement for "country-of-origin labeling" - or COOL, as Washington knows it - for food products was postponed a year after its adoption because of heavy lobbying from food groups saying that the law was unnecessary and expensive.
Recent fears over imported foods, however, have given new momentum to efforts to revive the law.
Though COOL's suspension is due to end in September 2008, food safety groups have called for it to end immediately. Worried opponents, meanwhile, are working to derail the law's implementation.
Some say recent food scares have made the labeling an idea whose time has come, and bills in the House and Senate propose making it effective as early as this September.
"There will be mandatory COOL by 2008 at the latest," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat. "I believe that this is the direction we're moving in. This is about consumers and their ability to make marketplace decisions."
If it takes effect, COOL would require country-of-origin labeling on beef, pork, lamb, fruit and peanuts. It would not apply to processed foods or to meals served in restaurants.
The labeling requirement has applied to fish and shellfish since 2005.
Opponents have become increasingly vocal, arguing that the law will be costly for grocers and food producers, who would have to maintain records on their products for one year.
Critics have also raised questions about the practicality of tracking cattle and hogs as they are raised, slaughtered and processed, asking how livestock owners and meatpacking companies should label meat from cattle and pigs that were born overseas but raised in the U.S.
"It's simply a bad idea," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, one of the idea's chief opponents. The cost of complying with the labeling law, Goodlatte said, would hurt domestic farmers and ranchers as well as beef and pork producers.
"It doesn't ensure any more food safety," the congressman insisted. "It's not a food safety issue. It's a marketing issue."
What makes COOL particularly contentious is that while powerful lobbies like the grocers and meatpackers are fighting it, other food producers enthusiastically support it, hoping foreign-origin labels will steer American shoppers back toward U.S. goods.
They say opponents are citing potential costs only to mask their real concern - consumer reaction.
If meat producers are forced to disclose that foreign beef goes into products like hamburger, some say, that could hurt sales, especially given the public's worries about mad cow disease.
"I think that there is concern, particularly with regard to some of the Mexican cattle," said Bill Bullard, president of R-CALF, a cattlemen's organization that, unlike much of the beef industry, supports COOL. "There's a concern that the Mexican label would not be well received. The same could be true of Canada, which has had ongoing [mad cow] disease problems."
Bullard also noted that cattle ranchers, by law, already must keep extensive health records on cattle.
The fight has become a classic Washington debate over new regulation, with millions of dollars and consumers' interests hanging in the balance.
Country of origin labeling was passed in 2002 as part of that year's farm bill, a huge piece of legislation that comes up for renewal about every five years. It was promoted as a way to protect American food producers from cheap imports, much like the "Made in the U.S.A." tags on clothing and other items.
But nearly as soon as President Bush signed the farm bill into law, COOL opponents began to work against it. The bill's effective date was delayed until September 2006, then again until 2008.
"It's been pretty clear to us who are in support of COOL that the intent in delaying it was really to give more time to kill it outright," said Patty Lovera, assistant director of the consumer group Food & Water Watch.
It is the measure's complex language describing what grocers and food producers must do to comply with the law that most troubles its critics.
"We consider it an awfully expensive way of going about doing something," said Allen Matthys, vice president for federal and state regulations at the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Products Association. "Regarding the appropriateness of an ingredient coming from a country, you need to deal with that country and that ingredient. Just putting a country-of-origin stamp on it doesn't help anybody."
Matthys said the cost of implementing COOL at the 28,000 retail stores likely to be affected would stretch into "hundreds of millions of dollars."
A study by the Food Marketing Institute, which opposes a mandatory labeling law, found that the costs of implementing the seafood portion of COOL have been higher than the Agriculture Department predicted. The USDA estimated that the first-year cost to retail stores would be $1,530 per store, the study said, but instead it has been $9,000 to $16,000.
COOL's supporters are also making their case. Wild American Shrimp Inc has begun airing television ads that highlight the family tradition of catching wild shrimp off America's Southern coast, contrasting it with farm-raised shrimp coming to the U.S. from Asian countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia.
Stephen J. Hedges writes for the Chicago Tribune.