From: Stephen J. Hedges, Organic Consumers Association, More from this Affiliate
Published September 16, 2008 09:44 AM

New Law Requires Labels on Meat - Country-of-Origin Labels to be Required

WASHINGTON - In a few weeks, American shoppers will be able to look at a cut of meat or a pound of hamburger and see something they've never seen before-a label that says where the meat came from.

Starting Sept. 30, food manufacturers and grocery stores have to comply with a new federal law that requires "Country of Origin Labeling," or COOL, on beef, pork, chicken and lamb.

The new labels will tell consumers whether their food came from animals raised in the U.S. or another country. The law also covers perishable items, such as fruits and vegetables and a variety of nuts. Some say this will enable consumers to avoid food that, for example, comes from countries that they have heard have food safety problems. It also will allow consumers to stick to American-grown food, if that is their preference.

Because of the complexities of the livestock industry, some product labels may list multiple countries. That's especially true of ground beef, because some meat processors combine cuts from a number of countries to make ground meat and hamburger patties.

Food safety groups have hailed COOL as a necessary step toward broader consumer education and buying choices. But now they complain that the Department of Agriculture has defined it as narrowly as possible.

For example, they say, the agency has defined a host of foods as "processed," such as mixed frozen vegetables, which exempts them from the new law.

"When they finalized this rule, they bent over backward to make as few things be covered as possible," said Michael Hansen, a senior staff scientist with Consumers Union. "There are giant, giant loopholes in the law."

Many in the meat industry, these advocates say, have fought the new labeling law because they don't want consumers to know that they're buying imported hamburger and beef cuts. The USDA also stood against COOL, according to Lloyd Day, head of the agency's Agricultural Marketing Service, because of its projected impact on consumers and its estimated cost to the food industry: $2.5 billion in the first year.

But Congress has decreed that COOL will take effect on Sept. 30, so the debate over its merits is largely over. Now the industry is bracing for COOL's impact.

"We don't know exactly how it's all going to work," said Colin Woodall, the executive director of legislative affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "And we won't know until it's fully up and running."

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