That now familiar crazy quilt of shifting coalitions wrapped itself around House and Senate farm-bill conferees again yesterday, deadlocking them this time on the issue of imported meat.
They remained split, as they have for days, on such basic questions as how much drug and chemical residue to allow in meat imports and whether horsemeat and kangaroo meat ought to be labeled as such before, or if, either ends up disguised as beef burger.
On this one, the administration, led by two former meat industry lobbyists, urged the conferees to hold fast against new inspection requirements sought for imported meats by U.S. producers.
On the other side were such unlikely allies as consumerists, led by the Community Nutrition Institute, and the National Cattlemen's Association, arguing for tougher labeling and chemical standards on imports.
With further stalemate in the offing, prospects diminished for an end to the lengthy conference this week. The standoff is tied largely to the administration's insistence that the conferees produce a less costly bill.
The meat deadlock had nothing to do with the budget. The administration and its conference allies are insisting that new requirements on imports would create trade barriers and jeopardize U.S. farm sales abroad.
The White House line is being pressed by Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Richard E. Lyng, former head of the American Meat Institute, and Assistant Secretary C.W. (Bill) McMillan, former chief lobbyist for the cattlemen.
Their former employers are on opposite sides this time, with the cattlemen urging that imported meats be free of chemicals and that drugs not be allowed for use in meat production in the United States.
Reps. Glenn English (D-Okla.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), pushing for tougher treatment of imports, contended that the central issues are public health and assurance that imported meat is additive-free.
Harkin said U.S. beef consumption has dropped in part because of increasing concern about "what is in the food chain."
That contention drew a heated rebuttal from Rep. Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), who told Harkin there was nothing to support it. "You're hiding behind health and safety standards to work against imports . . . it is not health and safety, but protectionism."
Harkin responded with all the vigor a congressman from a major livestock state can summon. "Maybe it's time for a little candor around here," he said. "People ought to expect the best of their meat."
The House conferees voted to go along with the Harkin-English approach, requiring that foreign meats abide by the same standards as U.S. meat. "Very sensitive and complicated," said Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), as his Senate delegation postponed a vote on the issue.