Long-sought labeling law takes effect

Published 10:22 am Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Labels on most fresh meats, along with some fruits, vegetables and other foods, will now list where the food originated.

In the case of meats, some labels will list where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered.

Food safety groups have long lobbied for the policy, which was enacted by Congress as part of a wide-ranging farm bill last year. The new rules aim to make it easier for regular consumers to know whether their food was imported or not.

However, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asked the meat industry last month to go beyond the new policy to be even more specific about where an animal was born, raised and slaughtered. But confusion over the policy is likely to linger as consumers and experts struggle to understand exactly what is covered under the regulations –– and what isn’t.

The regulations were first enacted in September, with a six-month window for manufacturers and suppliers to come into compliance. The regulations exclude a variety of foods that fall under the labeling requirement, but are considered to be processed, such as roasted peanuts, breaded chicken and bacon.

The processing exemption also means certain mixed foods, such as bagged lettuce that includes more than one variety, or frozen peas and carrots, don’t have to be labeled.

The labeling requirements, which would apply to fresh meats and some perishable fruits and vegetables, have long been debated in Congress.

While the meat industry and retailers responsible for the labels have protested the changes –– saying they are burdensome and could lead to higher prices –– consumer groups and northern state ranchers who compete with the Canadian beef industry favor them.

While some retailers rushed to implement new rules, others have long disclosed voluntarily where much of the food covered under the mandate is from.

The rule implemented March 16 covers muscle cuts and ground beef, lamb, chicken, goat and pork; wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish; perishable agricultural commodities (specifically fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables); macadamia nuts and pecans; ginseng and peanuts, according to the USDA.

Commodities covered under COOL (Country of Origin Labeling) must be labeled at retail to indicate its country of origin. For fish and shellfish, the method of production –– wild or farm–raised –– must be specified. Commodities are excluded from mandatory COOL if the commodity is an ingredient in a processed food item.

The definition of a processed food item excludes food that has undergone a physical or chemical change –– such as cooking, curing or smoking –– or that has been combined with other foods.

More information about the requirements are available from the USDA Web site.

Angela Treadaway is an extension agent for Shelby County. She can be reached by calling 410-3696.