By Renae Merle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 26, 2007
An ordinary trip to the supermarket meat department could turn into an experience in international comparison-shopping under House legislation scheduled to be debated today that for the first time would require meat products to be labeled by their country of origin.
The farm bill House members will consider includes a provision mandating that meat -- including beef, pork and lamb -- include a label stating where it came from. Only meat from animals born, raised and slaughtered in the United States would be eligible for a domestic label.
The measure aims to enforce a five-year-old law that has already been implemented for seafood but was delayed after meat packers, pork producers and grocery chains claimed it would create a costly bureaucratic and record-keeping nightmare. The issue reemerged this year after reports of safety problems with food and products from China spurred American consumers to seek more information about what they eat.
"We think consumers have a right to know, so they can make informed buying decisions," said Sally Greenberg, senior product safety counsel at Consumers Union. "Some consumers won't care, but many others do. It is time to put that law into practice."
Last week, the White House established a working group to review the safety of food. But the Bush administration has threatened to veto the farm bill -- and, with it, the meat-labeling measure -- because of a separate dispute with Democrats over farm subsidies. [Details, Page A6.]
Yesterday, Public Citizen issued a report questioning proposed free-trade agreements with Peru, Panama, Colombia and South Korea that the group says would make it easier for those countries to export food to the United States.
Under the agreements, the United States would rely on those countries' regulatory systems to ensure the food is safe, the report said. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has already rejected seafood from Peru and Panama for filth and the presence of food-borne pathogens, according to Public Citizen, a public-interest nonprofit group. "The gains we have made in food safety -- all of that is jeopardized by these free-trade agreements," said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).
Hurt by an influx of imports, U.S. farmers and cattle ranchers have championed country-of-origin labeling, known as COOL, hoping that consumers would choose a domestic product when labeling gives them a choice. About 14 percent of beef consumed in the United States is imported, and 80 percent of that goes into ground-beef products, said Tom Buis, president of the National Farmers Union.
"We have this flood of these competitive imports," Buis said. "We don't mind competing, but let's all put our name on it."
Research by Swift & Co., a Colorado meat packer, shows that a country-of-origin label will probably not be a deciding factor for most consumers, who more often take into consideration whether meat is organic or grass-fed, said company lobbyist Chandler Keys. But, he said, "I think the China issue has been a tipping point on this issue as of late."
China does not export meat to the United States but can export cooked poultry from birds raised and slaughtered here or in another country eligible to export raw poultry, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.
The legislation calls for the USDA to establish rules for the use of three types of labels by the end of 2008. Purely U.S. products would be eligible for a domestic label, but those with mixed origin would be more complicated. For example, a cow born in Mexico and then brought to the United States for slaughter would be labeled as a product of both countries. A third type of label, supporters say, would be used mostly for ground beef or pork and would list all countries the meat could be from.
Negotiations on some parts of the legislation lasted until early Tuesday morning, with 19 groups, including Tyson Foods and Hormel, signing a letter to Congress in support of the provision and pledging to oppose amending the labeling language.
Keys said an essential reason for the support from his company and other meat packers was that the law would no longer require meat that spent any time overseas to be labeled as exclusively a foreign product. "We wanted a label that better reflected the product," he said. "It just gives us more flexibility . . . to give the consumer a better understanding of what this product actually is."
But not all interest groups are ready to sign off. The Food Marketing Institute, which represents large retailers and wholesalers, is withholding support until it has more time to review the provision, said Tim Hammonds, president of the organization.
Hammonds acknowledged significant improvements in the current measure, including lowering the possible fine to $1,000 from $10,000 per violation, he said. "But we're not ready to give up the right to seek additional improvements," Hammonds said.
Staff writer Dan Morgan contributed to this report.