October 1, 2008

Food Now Gets Label of Origin

By Elizabeth Weise

Coming soon to an apple, a pound of hamburger or a head of lettuce near you will be a label that says what country the item came from.

The labeling has been a long time coming. It predates by years concerns about domestic and imported foods after E. coli outbreaks and chemical contamination.

First proposed in 2002, the country-of-origin legislation finally took effect in full on Tuesday. All meats, fish, and fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables must be identified by their country of origin, whether by a sticker, a sign, a placard or a label. Organ meats, such as heart, liver or kidney, aren't included.

The labeling originally was advocated by farmers and ranchers who believed consumers would choose U.S.-grown food. And today, consumer groups applaud the measure, saying it offers valuable information and choice.

The loopholes

But the consumer advocates are not thrilled with the many loopholes. For example, cooked and processed foods are exempt.

"You cook shrimp, it's not required to be labeled. Roasting, curing, salting, adding smoke flavor, all out," says Michael Hansen of Consumers Union. "You import a piece of fish and add a little smoke flavor ... boom. Processed. Out."

The Consumer Federation of America estimates that these exemptions also will cover 95% of peanuts, pecans and macadamia nuts and 60% of pork.

And that's not all.

"If you combine two covered commodities, then the resulting food will not be covered. So frozen peas will be covered, frozen carrots will be covered, but frozen peas and carrots in the same bag will not be covered," says Chris Waldrup of Consumer Federation of America.

Foods for restaurants or cafeterias are excluded. And smaller retailers, such as butchers and fish markets, don't have to comply.

The law presents the biggest challenge for meat producers, who fought hard against it. Animals often are moved between states or even countries, and the new rules mean a lot of paperwork, says Mark Dopp of the American Meat Institute, a processors group.

But it's hamburger that may give consumers pause. Meat for grinding can come from a number of places, including Australia, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand and Uruguay.

The meat industry scored one victory when the regulation was being crafted. Instead of being required to break down where the meat in hamburger comes from, the label can simply say, "May contain meat from" and list source countries.

"It's going to be burdensome. It's going to be costly," Dopp says. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates it will cost $2.5 billion to implement the law. But Dopp says retailers expect to spend a lot more to create the computer records that will follow a piece of meat over what can be an 8,000-mile journey from cow to meat counter.

The large chicken and tiny goat industries asked to be included. All chicken and goat consumed in this country are U.S.-raised. "It would have looked weird if we weren't included," says Dick Lobb of the National Chicken Council.

Over in the produce aisles, it's not that big of a deal because 60% to 70% of fruits and vegetables are U.S.-grown and already labeled, says Robert Guenther, a policy expert with the United Fresh Produce Association. Previous labeling was driven by state branding initiatives such as "California Grown" or "Florida's Best."

The biggest challenges for produce sellers is making sure records are in place and finding a way to mark hard-to-label foods such as head lettuce, bulk mushrooms, bulk potatoes and unshucked ears of corn. "For those, we'll probably use placards," Guenther says.

Consumers may start to see loose produce being packaged. People generally like choosing ears of sweet corn from a bin. But now it will be easier for suppliers to shuck the corn, put it on a plastic tray and cover it with a label-friendly sheet of plastic wrap, Guenther says.

History of the law

The labeling law has been years in the making, originally written into a 2002 farm bill and scheduled to take effect in 2004. But food producers and processers mounted intense opposition because of costs.

In 2004, Congress voted to delay all but the seafood portion until 2006. Seafood got through because Alaskan officials wanted to differentiate their wild-caught salmon from farmed and imported fish.

Congress again delayed implementation in 2006. The Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 added a few items, requiring labeling on chicken, goat meat, ginseng, pecans and macadamia nuts.

The USDA doesn't plan to go into full enforcement mode for a few months to give its educational efforts time to take effect. (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>