WASHINGTON - The Obama administration is throwing out food labeling rules proposed by the Agriculture Department just before George W. Bush left office, saying it wants labels for fresh meat and other foods that would show more clearly where an animal or food came from, according to consumer groups who've been briefed on the issue.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told several consumer groups Tuesday in a conference call that he will ask the meat industry to voluntarily follow stricter guidelines for new package labels designed to specify a food's country of origin, according to three people who were on the call. If the industry does not comply, the administration will write new rules, according to those who spoke with Vilsack.
The labeling requirements, which would apply to fresh meats and some perishable fruits and vegetables, long have been debated in Congress and were enacted as part of a wide-ranging farm bill last year. While the meat industry and retailers responsible for the labels have protested the changes - saying they are burdensome and could lead to higher prices - consumer groups and northern states ranchers who compete with the Canadian beef industry favor them.
All sides worked out a compromise during debate over the farm bill last year, but much of the law was left open to interpretation by the Agriculture Department. Supporters of the law were not happy with the Bush administration's version of the rules, which they said allowed meat companies to be vague about where an animal was born, raised and slaughtered.
According to those on the call, including Jean Halloran of Consumers Union and Patty Lovera of Food and Water Watch, Vilsack said he would like to see labels that would give consumers a clearer idea about the origin of the animal or food.
Vilsack also said the law should cover more foods, Halloran and Lovera said. Many foods that are defined as "processed" - roasted peanuts, for example, or cured bacon - are exempt from the law, but Vilsack proposed narrowing that definition.
Lovera said she was encouraged by the proposals, which Vilsack is expected to lay out in a letter to the meat industry Wednesday.
"The bottom line is we think people have a right to know and they can act on it based on their own opinions and preferences," she said.
The leading opponents of the law have been grocery stores and large meatpacking companies - many of whom mix U.S. and Mexican beef - and other businesses involved in getting products to supermarkets.
The Obama administration's changes could cause problems with the country's North American neighbors. Both Mexico and Canada have protested the labeling law in a complaint to the World Trade Organization. Obama is scheduled to visit Canada this week.