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Official calls for ‘country of origin’ food labels

/ Source: The Associated Press

The Obama administration is calling for stricter labels on fresh meat and other foods that would show more clearly where an animal or food came from.

The move comes as Obama prepares to visit Canada — a longtime opponent of the so-called “country of origin” labels — on Thursday. Both Canada and Mexico have protested the labeling in a complaint to the World Trade Organization.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told consumer groups, farm groups and meat industry leaders Tuesday that he will ask the meat industry to voluntarily follow stricter guidelines for new package labels designed to specify a food’s country of origin. The Agriculture Department abruptly canceled a scheduled announcement of the decision Wednesday morning, with little explanation.

In calling for the stricter guidelines, the Obama administration would be breaking from rules announced by the Agriculture Department shortly before President George W. Bush left office. Supporters of the labeling law — first enacted in a wide-ranging farm bill last year — 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.

If the industry does not comply with the stricter guidelines, the administration will write new rules, according to those who spoke with Vilsack on Tuesday.

Informing consumers

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.

According to those on the call, including Jean Halloran of Consumers Union and Patty Lovera of Food and Water Watch, Vilsack said he would like to see labels that would give consumers a clearer idea about the origin of the animal or food.

Vilsack also said the law should cover more foods, Halloran and Lovera said. Many foods that are defined as “processed” — roasted peanuts, for example, or cured bacon — are exempt from the law, but Vilsack proposed narrowing that definition.

Lovera said she was encouraged by the proposals, which Vilsack said he would lay out in a letter to the meat industry Wednesday.

“The bottom line is we think people have a right to know and they can act on it based on their own opinions and preferences,” she said.

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.