HELENA - The House endorsed a measure Wednesday that would require country-of-origin labeling for meat and other foods in Montana despite fears the proposed penalties would put some small grocery stores out of business.
The bill, which won initial approval 63-37, would mirror a national requirement for such labels that was to take effect this fall but is now postponed until at least September 2006.
The Bush administration has expressed a desire to repeal the law.
Opponents questioned the need for Havre Democratic Rep. Bob Bergren's bill given the national program, and criticized the proposed fines for noncompliance as too harsh.
The fines range between $100 and $1,000, with a jail sentence of up to six months possible for the removal of labels.
"This is a death knell for our little grocery stores," said Rep. Joan Andersen, R-Fromberg.
Bergren said supermarkets have two years to find reliable food sources from Montana and other parts of the United States before the law goes into effect.
After that, placards stating the country or origin or "origin unknown" will be required.
Bergren and other supporters said the bill is needed to protect Montana consumers and promote the state's beef industry, citing the recent instability over reopening the northern border to Canadian cattle because of concerns about mad cow disease.
"We need to uphold our heritage and stick up for Montana," said Rep. Veronica Small-Eastman, D-Lodge Grass.
Bergren's bill, if approved, would also serve as a backup plan if the national law is repealed, he said.
Supporters of the country-of-origin labels say they would allow consumers to know more about the meat they buy and would be a boon to ranchers with small operations.
Opponents argue they would cost too much to be practical.
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