The U.S. House of Representatives has taken a cautious approach to country-of-origin labeling– earlier this year representatives denied funding for USDA to implement the mandatory version of the program.

Now this week, Rep. Charles Stenholm (D-Texas) the House Ag Committee's ranking Democrat said Congress should delay the mandatory COOL for at least a few years. He contends the delay is needed to allow food processors time to prepare for implimentation of the controversial labeling law.

He says a temporary delay would help resolve differences over COOL labels. "We got the cart before the horse," Stenholm told a commodity group in a luncheon speech. "Give us a couple of years to develop a voluntary system that works– and which will have a very high percentage of all food products labeled."

As written, mandatory COOL is set to go into effect as of Sept. 30, 2004. The debate on COOL's actual costs and benefits rages on and is part of the reason for the great divide on its implementation. In October, USDA increased its cost estimate for the mandatory program to $3.9 billion for the first year.

The U.S. Senate has taken different position on COOL than has the House. Several farm-state senators are standing firm in support. The Senate has already adopted non-binding language, which states mandatory COOL should proceed as scheduled.

With both houses of Congress focused on wrapping up several issues before recessing for the Holidays, there's still much work to be done. House and Senate negotiators hoped to meet this week to reconcile the two very different versions of their agriculture spending bills. COOL is expected to be the biggest obstacle in reaching a joint agreement.

It does feel that COOL has been pushed through without a sincere long-term perspective. Stenholm's idea to take the time to implement an effective voluntary labeling program, would allow the industries to get the bugs out and learn what will and won't work. It makes a lot of sense. Hopefully Congress will use theirs an decide to delay mandatory COOL.