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At Long Last, Food Labeling Law Set To Take Effect

Still, some expect confusion over what must be labeled

Allison Linn

Beginning Sept. 30, the government will require food retailers to tell consumers what country certain foods came from. (Getty Images)

Walk into a grocery store after Sept. 30, and
you'll be more likely to find out whether that head of lettuce you are
buying was grown in Mexico or the United States. If you pick up a bag
of lettuce, however, don't necessarily expect the same information.

years of wrangling, so-called "country of origin labeling" is expected
to take effect at the end of the month, requiring most food retailers
to disclose where many types of meat, produce and other food products
come from. The new rules aim to make it easier for regular consumers to
know whether their food was imported or not, much like they can find
out whether the toys they buy for their children were made domestically
or overseas.

But while the regulations will
provide customers with more information about where their food comes
from, there also is likely to be some confusion, as consumers - and
experts - work to understand exactly what is covered under the
regulations, and what isn't.

That's because
the regulations exclude a variety of foods that fall under the labeling
requirement but are considered to be processed, including roasted
peanuts, breaded chicken and bacon. The exemption for processed food
also means that certain foods that are mixed together don't have to be
labeled, such as a bag of lettuce that includes both Romaine and
iceberg, or a package of frozen peas and carrots.

and food safety advocates say they are generally happy with the rules,
and relieved that the regulations are finally going into effect at all
after so many delays. Still, they expect the guidelines will be
puzzling to some consumers.

Adding to confusion? "It
does create confusion in the marketplace, and it's not what consumers
expect," said Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at
the Consumer Federation of America. "It's not the intent of the law."

Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit
focused on clean water and food safety, believes the definitions are
too broad because they exclude such widely eaten forms of covered
foods, such as roasted peanuts.

Billy Cox,
a spokesman for the USDA, said the government is following Congress'
mandate in what foods are covered, including the decision to exclude
processed foods. He declined to comment further on how they decided
what constitutes a processed food.

White, chief legal officer for the Food Marketing Institute, a retail
trade group, said her group has long raised concerns about what the
rules cover  - chicken but not turkey, for example, and supermarkets
but not butcher shops.

"We were concerned about this law from the outset because it doesn't make a lot of sense in certain ways," she said.

White said that after years of arguing that disclosures like these
should be voluntary rather than mandatory, retailers are now focused on
implementing it.

The country of origin
labeling requirement has been years in the making. It was established
when Congress passed the 2002 Farm Bill, but implementation was delayed
repeatedly. It was then amended again with the 2008 Farm Bill to
include more foods.

The nearly final rules
are now scheduled to go into effect on Sept. 30, and retailers will
then have six months to make sure they understand the regulations
correctly and come into compliance. The next step will be for the
government to come out with a final set of rules, incorporating
separate seafood and shellfish regulations, but there is no date set
yet for that to happen.

those years, the Food Marketing Institute argued that mandatory
labeling would be costly and that voluntary disclosures would suffice.
The USDA estimates that record-keeping and maintenance will cost
retailers about $247 million per year.

labeling can't help but increase the cost of a product," White said.
"We, as an industry, oppose anything that's going to raise the cost of
food for consumers."

Consumer and
environmental groups have countered that consumers should be able to
find out where their food comes from, especially in light of recent
food safety scares and environmental concerns about shipping food from

'Right to know' issue "For us, the bottom line is it's a ‘right to know' issue," said Lovera, of Food & Water Watch.

some retailers rush to implement the rules, others, like upscale grocer
Whole Foods, are already voluntarily disclosing where much of the food
covered under the mandate comes from. In some cases, Whole Foods has
used the information as a selling point both for people who want to eat
locally grown food and those who want exotic foods from far-off locales.

spokeswoman Libba Letton said the company also is sorting through some
of the nuances of the law, such as a decision to include macadamia nuts
but not walnuts. She said that even for the retailer, such distinctions
aren't always easily understood.

company also has seen some of the downside to labeling, such as when it
faced criticism after voluntarily disclosing that a tiny proportion of
its frozen organic produce was coming from China. But Letton said the
mandatory labeling rules have not caused Whole Foods to change where
they get any food products.

Now, with the rules set to go into effect, some wonder whether they will prompt consumers to change their shopping habits.

of the Consumer Federation of America, thinks consumers may be
surprised to find how much of their produce is imported, especially
during the off season.

"My guess is that
you will see changes in some of the purchasing habits because consumers
are becoming more and more aware, and want to know where their food is
coming from," he said.

But White, of the retailers' trade group, isn't so sure.

think, for the most part, the consumer is pretty sophisticated and
understands, in this day and age, (that) food comes from all over the
world," she said.


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