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WASHINGTON ROUNDUP: Industry eyes immigration reform

WASHINGTON -- The immigration debate may take center stage again in the coming weeks, as Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and John McCain (R-AZ) are expected to soon introduce a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Advocates for reform are calling on the Bush administration to convince allies to support a comprehensive bill this year.

"Without the administration's earnest engagement on this issue, our efforts are likely to suffer the same fate they did last year," said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who chaired a hearing on the issue last month. He said that finding the necessary 2,000 workers to staff Vermont dairy farms is becoming increasingly difficult.

"Vermont dairy farmers should not have to choose between saving their family farms and obeying the law," he said.

COOL heats up
The Food Marketing Institute recently criticized bills in Congress that would move up the 2008 deadline for implementing the country of origin labeling rules for meat, poultry and produce to September 2007.

Mandatory COOL for seafood has failed to deliver the increased sales benefits for U.S. seafood, said FMI. At the same time, the supermarket industry's compliance costs rose 10 times higher than the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimate.

"The industry's experience underscores the need to replace the law with a flexible, industry-led program that would be far less costly and provide information that would actually resonate with consumers such as 'Wild Alaskan Salmon,' 'Georgia Peaches' or 'Vidalia Onions,'" said Tim Hammonds, FMI president and chief executive officer.

FMI responded to a letter sent to House and Senate leaders from a long list of COOL supporters urging Congress to act this year on the controversial labeling law.

"Our coalition has grown impatient with the implementation delays in previous Congresses, which restricted USDA funds to implement this very popular provision," said the letter from the National Farmers Union and other groups. "Your leadership is needed to ensure the intent of Congress and the will of the American people are met."

Spinach report
U.S. Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) pressed FDA's top official at a recent congressional hearing about when the agency's long-awaited report on the spinach outbreak would be released.

Rep. Farr said that FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach could not tell him when the report would be ready or when he could share information on the investigation.

"It has been five full months since the E. coli outbreak in fresh spinach that was linked to the Salinas Valley," he said. "Our spinach producers have been working hard to restore consumer confidence in their product, but the FDA has yet to release their report about what happened."

There have been some indications that the report's findings might be released at the March 20 public meeting on produce safety in Oakland, CA.