Food companies fighting Congress' directive to start telling consumers whether the fish they buy was farm-raised or caught won a six-month reprieve Thursday from the Agriculture Department.
New regulations to implement a provision in the 2002 farm bill requiring fresh and frozen fish to carry labels specifying their origin were issued Thursday, but the government said grocery stores won't have to comply until April. The labels also will have to specify what country the seafood came from.
Food companies and trade groups had complained processors would have to throw out stocks of fish if they could not sell them before the labeling requirement took effect.
The wait will let the industry sell off its existing product, the Agriculture Department said. Officials said they also plan to delay for a year strict enforcement of the new requirements while commercial fishermen, fish farmers, importers, distributors and retailers are trained on how to comply.
Fisherman, operators support requirements
The labeling requirement was supported by the commercial fishermen and fish farm operators, who say consumers will prefer domestic to foreign product. It was opposed by retailers and other food handlers, who say the record-keeping will be burdensome. Both sides say the department gave them only part of what they wanted.
Under the rule, supermarkets and larger retailers will be responsible for the labeling but smaller "mom and pop" retailers will not have to comply, said A.J. Yates, administrator of the department's Agricultural Marketing Service.
The rule also exempts processed fish, such as canned tuna, breaded fish sticks and smoked fish, Yates said. Processors commonly mix fish from many sources, and "it's virtually impossible to specify where each can of fish came from," said Linda Candler, a spokeswoman for the National Fisheries Institute, a seafood trade association based in McLean, Va.
The labeling requirement also does not cover fish sold in food service establishments such as restaurants or the salad bar and deli sections of supermarkets, Yates said.
Labeling with the country of origin should produce more sales for U.S. fishermen, said Deborah Long, a spokeswoman for the Southern Shrimp Alliance, a Tarpon Springs, Fla.-based coalition of shrimp boaters.
"If they could enforce it tomorrow, that would be much better for the U.S. shrimp industry," Long said.
Consumers should benefit because they could, for instance, avoid farm-raised shrimp from Southeast Asia, which can contain large amounts of "very strong" antibiotics, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based advocacy group.
The record-keeping requirements also could help food safety investigators trace outbreaks of foodborne disease, DeWaal said.
The industry continues to object to the record-keeping requirements. The rule was simplified from earlier plans but still runs over 200 pages. That's "excessive paperwork and other bureaucratic procedures that do not benefit consumers and only inflate the cost of healthy, popular seafood products," said Tim Hammonds, president and chief executive officer of the Food Marketing Institute, a Washington-based trade group.
While charged with enforcing the new regulations, the department also saw scant value in the law's labeling requirement, Yates said.
"We have been able to find little tangible evidence that consumers state a preference for country of origin labeling, and (that) it will lead to increased demand for U.S. commodities bearing a label," he said.