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Country of Origin Labeling Takes Effect Today

Spam, Still the Mystery Meat, Escapes New U.S. Food-Label Rules
By Alan Bjerga and Tony C. Dreibus
September 30, 2008

U.S. rules requiring meat and fresh produce to be labeled by national origin are falling short of lawmakers’ aims, leaving shoppers in the dark about where mixed vegetables, steaks and Spam come from, some lawmakers say.

Six years after being adopted by Congress, country-of-origin labeling takes effect today. Concern about unsafe imports from China and Canada helped overcome food industry efforts to delay the measures. They will cost companies $2.5 billion in the first year, with retailers spending more to market beef, pork and lamb, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says. Industry groups say expenses will be even higher.

Some lawmakers and consumer advocates say loopholes will let meatpackers blur the distinction between foreign and domestic meat. Mixed vegetables are exempt from the requirements, as are processed foods ranging from roasted peanuts to Spam, the canned luncheon meat made by Hormel Foods Corp. More regulations may be needed, the lawmakers say.

“USDA may be trying to dodge congressional intent,’ said Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the Democrat who heads the House subcommittee that oversees the department’s funding. Last week 31 senators, including Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, wrote Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer calling for more restrictive meat-labeling rules.

It’s too early to consider changes to the new rules, according to Mark Dopp, a lobbyist for the American Meat Institute, whose members include Tyson Foods Inc. and Kraft Foods Inc.

“We don’t know how the markets will react; we don’t know how the consumers will react,” Dopp said.

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