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Now that the 2004 presidential election is over and President George W. Bush has been returned to office for a second term, with stronger majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, MNB turned to Tim Hammonds, president/CEO of the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) to gauge the impact on food industry-related issues.

MNB: Now that Sen. Tom Daschle, identified as a chief proponent of Country of Origin Labeling (COOL), has been defeated, what do you think the likelihood is that these regulations will be eliminated and that the industry will go to an entirely voluntary system?

Tim Hammonds: Since Senator Daschle was a powerful and outspoken opponent of voluntary COOL, and since Sen. Kerry had endorsed mandatory COOL during his campaign, it's safe to assume the voters have improved our chances of substituting a voluntary program considerably.

A remarkably broad coalition representing the food industry quite literally from farm to table is united behind a workable and efficient voluntary program, at least for meat and produce. I believe we are only days away from being able to develop a realistic timetable for making this happen. As to fish, the path forward is less clear because of the nature of the industry and the politics of where the key supply sources are located. However, negotiations are ongoing and I fully expect we will be able to develop a workable alternative before the enforcement period begins for the current law.

MNB: Permanent elimination of estate taxes also would seem to be a far greater likelihood as a result of yesterday’s vote. What’s the prognosis?

Tim Hammonds: We believe that one of the first priorities of the administration working with the new Congress will be making the President's existing tax reforms permanent. In all likelihood, the entire array of reforms will be rolled into one package rather than taking them up one piece at a time. As this process moves forward, we will be pushing hard to make sure that doing away with the "Death Tax" is the centerpiece of that package.

MNB: Finally, what other industry priorities do you think can be addressed in the new environment, and what would be the timetable for targeting these issues?

Tim Hammonds: It is the nature of our political process that only during a second term is any president is able to address the really difficult issues, with the exception of true national emergencies. This election now gives this administration that opportunity with no shortage of issues on the list. If the issues are formidable, at least our nation has an understanding of why each is important.

We need a broad national debate on truly reforming our tax code. Everyone will understand this because everyone hates dealing with the current monstrously complicated IRS rules and the alternative minimum tax eats into a larger portion of our population each year. The president has already made plans to appoint a commission to work with the Treasury in developing a set of recommendations. This is important for us because taxpayers are shoppers and the majority of our family supermarkets file using the individual tax rates when they submit their taxes.

We need an energy policy capable of addressing the realities of today's global marketplace. Everyone who buys gasoline or heats a home over the coming winter understands this all too well. Raising, processing and transporting food is incredibly energy intensive so we need to be at the table when the policy debate takes place.

We need health care reform addressing a broad array of issues including drug reimportation, medical malpractice reform and developing effective cost controls. We need social security reform, we need pension reform, and we need to continue to liberalize agricultural trade with our global partners if we're going to continue to meet the changing tastes of our remarkably diverse American consumers.

And, let's not forget the need to address the rapidly escalating fees for debit and credit cards focusing particularly on interchange fees. Australia has already capped the interchange rate their banks can charge and the European Union has set limits on the costs that banks can include in their interchange calculations. Some reasonable approach to controlling those fees is overdue in our own country.

This is a broad agenda even before we get to some of the more narrowly specific issues unique to our industry. It's going to take some time before it becomes clear which issues the administration and the new congress will move front and center and to see what the timetable will look like. Our challenge at FMI is to follow all of these. We have already started discussions on each with member committees to be sure we're ready to help shape the debate whatever the timetable for any specific issue turns out to be.
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