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USDA to Meat Industry: Give Shoppers More Details

posted on February 20, 2009


WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Obama administration has asked the meat industry to voluntarily give the public more information about where their food comes from.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told consumer groups, farm groups and meat industry leaders earlier this week that the administration would call for stricter labels on fresh meat and other foods that would show where an animal was born, raised and slaughtered.

The action comes after President Barack Obama returned from Canada, which has joined Mexico in protesting the so-called "country of origin" labels in a complaint to the World Trade Organization. The Agriculture Department abruptly canceled a scheduled announcement of the decision Wednesday morning, with little explanation, a day before Obama's trip.

The department announced the changes Friday afternoon, after Obama's return, and Vilsack sent a letter to the meat industry detailing the requests.

"The Department of Agriculture will be closely reviewing industry compliance," Vilsack said in the letter, dated Friday.

In calling for the stricter guidelines, the Obama administration is breaking from rules announced by the department shortly before President George W. Bush left office. The labeling law was enacted in a wide-ranging farm bill last year, but much of it was left up to interpretation by the Department of Agriculture.

Supporters of the labeling law were not happy with the Bush administration's version of the rules, which they said allowed meat companies to be vague about where an animal was born, raised and slaughtered.

The Bush administration rule, which won praise from Canada, still takes effect next month. Vilsack told stakeholders the administration will write new rules if the meat industry does not comply with the voluntary standards.

Besides the more detailed labels, Vilsack also said the law should cover more foods that are defined as "processed." For example, roasted peanuts and cured bacon are exempt from the law because they are considered processed.

The labeling requirements, which would apply to fresh meats and some perishable fruits and vegetables, have long been debated in Congress. The meat industry and retailers responsible for the labels have protested the changes, saying they are burdensome and could lead to higher prices. But consumer groups and northern state ranchers who compete with the Canadian beef industry favor them.

Some of the law's leading opponents have been grocery stores and large meatpacking companies, many of which mix U.S. and Mexican beef, and other businesses involved in getting products to supermarkets.


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