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At long last, food labeling law set to take effect

After years of wrangling, so-called “country of origin labeling” is expected to take effect at the end of the month, requiring most food retailers to disclose where many types of meat, produce and other food products come from. The new rules aim to make it easier for regular consumers to know whether their food was imported or not, much like they can find out whether the toys they buy for their children were made domestically or overseas.

But while the regulations will provide customers with more information about where their food comes from, there also is likely to be some confusion, as consumers — and experts — work to understand exactly what is covered under the regulations, and what isn’t.

That’s because the regulations exclude a variety of foods that fall under the labeling requirement but are considered to be processed, including roasted peanuts, breaded chicken and bacon. The exemption for processed food also means that certain foods that are mixed together don’t have to be labeled, such as a bag of lettuce that includes both Romaine and iceberg, or a package of frozen peas and carrots.

Consumer and food safety advocates say they are generally happy with the rules, and relieved that the regulations are finally going into effect at all after so many delays. Still, they expect the guidelines will be puzzling to some consumers.

Adding to confusion?

“It does create confusion in the marketplace, and it’s not what consumers expect,” said Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America. “It’s not the intent of the law.”

Billy Cox, a spokesman for the USDA, said the government is following Congress’ mandate in what foods are covered, including the decision to exclude processed foods. He declined to comment further on how they decided what constitutes a processed food.

Deborah White, chief legal officer for the Food Marketing Institute, a retail trade group, said her group has long raised concerns about what the rules cover  — chicken but not turkey, for example, and supermarkets but not butcher shops.

“We were concerned about this law from the outset because it doesn’t make a lot of sense in certain ways,” she said.

Still, White said that after years of arguing that disclosures like these should be voluntary rather than mandatory, retailers are now focused on implementing it.

The country of origin labeling requirement has been years in the making. It was established when Congress passed the 2002 Farm Bill, but implementation was delayed repeatedly. It was then amended again with the 2008 Farm Bill to include more foods.

The nearly final rules are now scheduled to go into effect on Sept. 30, and retailers will then have six months to make sure they understand the regulations correctly and come into compliance. The next step will be for the government to come out with a final set of rules, incorporating separate seafood and shellfish regulations, but there is no date set yet for that to happen.

Over those years, the Food Marketing Institute argued that mandatory labeling would be costly and that voluntary disclosures would suffice. The USDA estimates that record-keeping and maintenance will cost retailers about $247 million per year.

“Government-mandated labeling can’t help but increase the cost of a product,” White said. “We, as an industry, oppose anything that’s going to raise the cost of food for consumers.”

Consumer and environmental groups have countered that consumers should be able to find out where their food comes from, especially in light of recent food safety scares and environmental concerns about shipping food from afar.

'Right to know' issue

“For us, the bottom line is it’s a ‘right to know’ issue,” said Lovera, of Food & Water Watch.

As some retailers rush to implement the rules, others, like upscale grocer Whole Foods, are already voluntarily disclosing where much of the food covered under the mandate comes from. In some cases, Whole Foods has used the information as a selling point both for people who want to eat locally grown food and those who want exotic foods from far-off locales.

The company also has seen some of the downside to labeling, such as when it faced criticism after voluntarily disclosing that a tiny proportion of its frozen organic produce was coming from China. But Letton said the mandatory labeling rules have not caused Whole Foods to change where they get any food products.

Now, with the rules set to go into effect, some wonder whether they will prompt consumers to change their shopping habits.

Waldrop, of the Consumer Federation of America, thinks consumers may be surprised to find how much of their produce is imported, especially during the off season.

“My guess is that you will see changes in some of the purchasing habits because consumers are becoming more and more aware, and want to know where their food is coming from,” he said.

But White, of the retailers’ trade group, isn’t so sure.

“I think, for the most part, the consumer is pretty sophisticated and understands, in this day and age, (that) food comes from all over the world,” she said.