Video: New food labels

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 3/16/2009 6:54:50 PM ET 2009-03-16T22:54:50

Shoppers will have more information about where their food comes from under a new policy starting today.

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. It's also popular with ranchers in the northern part of the United States who compete with Canadian cattle producers.

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 last month asked the meat industry to go beyond the new policy, which was written by the Bush administration, 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. As msnbc.com reported, 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 that certain mixed foods, such as bagged lettuce that includes more than one variety, or frozen peas and carrots, don't have to be labeled.

A long time coming
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.

All sides worked out a compromise during debate over the farm bill last year, but much of the law was left open to interpretation by the Agriculture Department.

While some retailers rushed to implement new rules, others have long disclosed voluntarily where much of the food covered under the mandate is from. Whole Foods, an upscale grocery chain, has long informed consumers about products proecures locally as well as foods from far-flung lands.

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The rule implemented Monday 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; pecans; ginseng and peanuts, according to the USDA.

Commodities covered under COOL 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.

The rule also excludes restaurants, lunchrooms, cafeterias, food stands, bars, lounges and other other food service sites from participation.

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

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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