The U.S. House passed legislation Friday to require mandatory country-of-origin labeling for some produce and meats, including beef, pork, lamb and goat. The measure, included in the House version of the 2007 Farm Bill, weakened penalties and documentation requirements that retailers and meatpackers had criticized as burdensome.
The labeling measure was made law in 2002, but only went into effect for seafood. Implementation for meat and produce has been delayed until now. Even with House approval, implementation in 2008 is not guaranteed. The White House has threatened to veto the Farm Bill over the House version's subsidies to farmers. The Senate will consider its version of the legislation in the Fall.
Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the Center for Food Safety, said that while his organization did not consider the original documentation requirements to be particularly onerous, he doesn't think their easement will change the law's effectiveness as long as it is enforced consistently. "It's not like it's been gutted or anything," he said of the bill.
Bill Greer of the Food Marketing Institute, which represents retailers, said his organization had hoped earlier that a voluntary labeling program could be instituted instead of a mandatory system. However, the group is pleased with the compromises in the House Farm Bill.
For instance, he said, fines have been reduced from $10,000 per violation to $1,000. Retailers' liability has been relaxed so that they must willfully violate the law to face penalties. As far as documentation, the law says a new paper trail, which retailers feared would be costly and time consuming, need not be created. Existing records can be used to identify country of origin.
Specifically, ground beef was a product that concerned food sellers because of how it is made. Greer says people often mix meat from various countries, and it would have been difficult to trace back every animal. "Now they only have to list the countries where that meat may reasonably have come from, based on the suppliers, instead of having to be very specific about the origin of the meat," he said.
Mendelson says country-of-origin labeling is not a substitute for providing consumers with only safe food, but it does allow them to make a risk-based assessment about the food they buy. He expects consumers will use the labels in making purchasing decisions for a variety of reasons, such as supporting U.S. farmers, sending money to a country where they have relatives, or avoiding products from places like China while they don't have confidence in their food safety.
"I think it will be overwhelmingly welcomed by consumers," Mendelson says of the labels. "But I think consumers will look at this as one piece. I don't think it's a cure-all."
Greer says FMI may seek more changes to the labeling requirements when the Senate considers the Farm Bill in the Fall.