The fight continues to let consumers know exactly what is U.S. beef and what isn't.

There have been several attempts to pass mandatory country of origin labeling for meat and meat products in the U.S. So far all have been unsuccessful.

But recent developments on two fronts might improve the odds of some day finding beef stamped as "USA Beef" in the grocer's meatcase.

Recently, proponents and opponents of a bill (HR1144) in the U.S. Congress were told by Livestock and Horticulture Subcommittee chairmen Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA) and Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN) to stop fighting, sit down and work out a consensus. The bill would make country of origin labeling for meat and meat products mandatory in the U.S.

"Discussions are ongoing and we're trying to come to a resolution so that there can be voluntary labeling," says Chuck Lambert, chief economist for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA).

James Ratchford, the public affairs officer for the American Meat Institute (AMI), says his organization believes voluntary labeling would best serve the consumer. "But right now, we're hung up on defining `U.S. beef'," he says.

According to Lambert and Ratchford, they are at breakpoint until they can reach a consensus on the definition.

"The Farmers Union wants it labeled `in the U.S. for 180 days,'" says Lambert. "AMI wants `born and raised in the U.S.' The Food Marketing Institute says 100 days. And, NCBA, the National Meat Association and Farm Bureau agree that it should say `fed and lived in the U.S. for 90 days.'"

While packers and retailers are willing to market the beef as a product of the U.S., Lambert says, they need legal certainty from the USDA. "If we can't reach a consensus soon, we will have to go to the Hill and fight this one out."

Federal law requires most imports, including beef, to have a label indicating country of origin when it enters the U.S. However, once non-retail items enter the country and are further processed, USDA meat and poultry inspection laws consider them to be domestic products.

Currently, all meat coming into the U.S. is inspected and receives the USDA grade stamp. But, the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Foundation (R-CALF) is trying to stop imports from receiving the quality grade stamp and they appear to be making headway.

At the urging of U.S. Senators Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson (D-SD), the Clinton Administration has announced it will take the necessary steps - by the end of the year - to require that USDA stop applying its quality grade stamp to imported meat.

"I believe U.S. cattle producers' intention was to have the grade stamp restricted from all imported animals and meat, not just the carcasses, however this is a good first step," says Leo McDonnell, Jr., R-CALF chairman from Columbus, MT.

In the absence of country of origin labeling, R-CALF believes the USDA grade stamp should be reserved for products of U.S. origin. The group has asked Clinton to add live cattle imports to the restriction on the use of the USDA grade stamp.

In 1999, NCBA advocated legislation to stop labeling imports with the U.S. grade. "The stamp implies that it is U.S. beef," says Lambert. "Many consumers believe that they are buying a product made in the U.S."

In 1998, 14% of the beef purchased by U.S. consumers was imported product, but was sold under the impression that it was U.S. beef.

Proponents of the bill feel consumers should have the right to know the origin of the meat they consume. "If you can know where your T-shirt is made, why not the meat you eat?" they argue.

Meanwhile, opponents of the bill feel that tracing back the animal's origin could be cumbersome and the costs, which may range from $60 million to $1 billion, could hurt the livestock industries. They also worry about trade retaliation.

In September, NCBA and a coalition of commodity and industry groups petitioned USDA to consider voluntary beef labeling by retailers and foodservice. The "Beef Made in the USA" label is part of a three-pronged NCBA effort that also includes legislation and the speedy release of USDA's proposed rule to end the use of the USDA grade on imported beef carcasses.