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COL Labeling may cost consumers $2 billion

WASHINGTON -- A new system of labeling food so consumers can see which country it was grown and processed in could cost farmers and the food industry an estimated $2 billion, according to the Agriculture Department.

The estimate was published Nov. 21 in the Federal Register. The government is seeking public comment on ways to minimize the cost of the program.

The Food Marketing Institute said last week that the program is expensive for farmers and manufacturers who have to keep records so meat, fish and other products can be labeled with their country of origin. The institute warned consumers' wallets will get hit as the food industry tries to offset the costs.

"Much of the burden will fall ultimately on consumers in higher costs for the hundreds of products that must be labeled in this program," said Tim Hammonds, president and CEO of the institute, an organization of retailers and wholesalers.

The government issued guidelines in October for the food industry to mark products with their country of origin -- a system set up by the farm bill approved in May. The program is voluntary for two years but will become mandatory.

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Farm Bureau changes policy on biotech

BISMARCK, N.D. -- The North Dakota Farm Bureau has changed its policy on biotech wheat, favoring a "cautious approach" to commercialization rather than a moratorium.

Delegates to the farm group's recent annual meeting voted 56-49 to make the change, said spokesman Brian Kramer.

State Farm Bureau President Eric Aasmundstad said last week that the change of the year-old policy "brings us more in line with the core philosophy of our organization."

"We're very supportive of free enterprise. Let the market dictate what is going to happen," Aasmundstad said.

Many farmers and officials worry that biotech wheat could harm producers because some U.S. export customers have said they do not want it.

State lawmakers in 2001 rejected a two-year ban on genetically engineered wheat seed and instead called for a study of the issues surrounding biotechnology.

Officials probe how cow got tuberculosis

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FRESNO, Calif. -- State officials are investigating how a cow got bovine tuberculosis.

A federal meat inspector discovered a lesion on a carcass at Beef Packers Inc. on Sept. 23. Investigators are uncertain of where the cow originated, said Steve Lyle, spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

If the cow is traced back to a California herd and if a second cow from the herd tests positive for bovine TB, it would mean a second outbreak in California, causing the state to lose its hard-earned status as being free of bovine TB. It would force cattlemen to administer costly tests before shipping cows out-of-state.

"It would be the beef industry that will be jeopardized," said Benjamin Higgins, spokesman for the California Cattlemen's Association. "A sizable portion of our cattle get shipped to the Midwest."

The association estimates it could cost the state's cattlemen about $2 million a year to test animals. California has a $6 billion beef and cattle industry.

Bankruptcy filings increase 12 percent

WASHINGTON -- Bankruptcy filings by individuals and businesses jumped 12 percent in the three months ending in September to a record 401,306, according to data released last week.

New bankruptcy filings in the 12 months ended Sept. 30 totaled 1,547,669, up 7.7 percent from the year-earlier period and exceeding the record high of 1,492,129 in 2001, a year in which the economy slid into recession, data compiled by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts show.

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The American Bankruptcy Institute, a group of bankruptcy judges, lawyers and experts, said the filings surged 30 percent from the third quarter two years earlier.

They reflected "the hangover of debt built up during the 1990s," said Samuel Gerdano, the institute's executive director.

As is normally the case, most bankruptcy filings were by individuals: 391,873 in the July-September quarter and 1,508,578 in the 12-month period.

Christmas tree growers face tough times

SALEM, Ore. -- It's the best of times for Christmas-tree harvesters in Oregon -- but the worst of times could be looming.

The value of this year's state harvest is expected to increase above last year's record $151 million. Oregon is the nation's No. 1 Christmas tree producer, supplying nearly a quarter of all Christmas trees sold in the United States.

But some worry that drastically increased plantings by Oregon growers could lead to a glut in the market, and a resultant price drop.

"The tendency is 'times are great, plant more trees,"' said Jim Corliss, a Maine Christmas tree farmer who is president of the National Christmas Tree Association. "We've got to cultivate more customers at the same time."

Last year, Oregon growers planted more than 10.5 million trees. That's an 87 percent increase compared with new plantings in 1996 and well above the 8.1 million trees sold last year.

Much disparity seen in Nebraska

LINCOLN, Neb. -- This is a year of "haves and "have-nots'' in Nebraska agriculture.

There's likely to be significantly more income disparity among Nebraska farmers this year, thanks to drought and other factors, says Roy Frederick, a University of Nebraska agricultural economist.

"It's probably the most significant in nearly a decade,'' he said. "It's a rather poor year overall, but around that average of being poor there are some who will have done very well and all too many who will see red ink.''

Negatives include the drought, limited irrigation water in some areas, increased irrigation costs, dried up grazing lands, higher forage costs and drab livestock prices.

Farm Bureau wants trade with Cuba

HAVANA -- The head of a powerful U.S. farm lobby said Friday his group will back renewed efforts in Congress to allow U.S. farmers to use financing to sell food to communist Cuba.

Now all American food sales to the Caribbean island -- permitted under a special exception to the long-standing U.S. trade embargo -- must be paid for with cash. The Bush administration has argued against financing, saying Cuba doesn't pay its debts.

"We believe that private entities should have the opportunity to provide financing if they so choose," said Bob Stallman, president of the Washington-based American Farm Bureau Federation, which represents 5.2 million American farm families.

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