Get ready for even more fine print to squint at in stores: By the end of this month, foods will come with labels that tell you what country they hail from. A new law mandating such labeling takes effect Sept. 30 — six years after Congress passed it.
The measure — backed by farmers eager to compete with foreign producers and food safety advocates — requires meat, poultry and produce to contain labels listing their country of origin.
The effective date was delayed by industry protests that it would cost too much. Companies will spend an estimated $2.5 billion next year to fulfill the requirement, plus an annual $499 million to maintain it afterwards, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently estimated. (The labeling guidelines can be found here.)
But groups such as Consumers Union say the labels will help consumers decide what foods are healthy, especially during food-related disease outbreaks such as the salmonella scare this summer, during which tomatoes were wrongly blamed before officials finally fingered Mexican jalapeños as the source.
"The country labels on seafood seem to have had little impact on price, and packaged foods have included these labels for decades," Jean Halloran, director of CU's food policy initiatives, said in a statement. "We would be surprised if the new labels on meat and fresh produce caused noticeable changes in price in the supermarket."
Just how useful the labels will be to shoppers isn't clear. Notable exceptions to the requirement include products sold in butcher shops and fish markets — as well as in restaurants where disease outbreaks often originate, the Sacramento Bee wrote in a recent preview of the law.
What's more, packers don’t have to be specific about where the meat consumers are buying came from, the Des Moines Register noted in a recent piece. Instead, they can list all the countries they bought from during a given period. "So in the store, ground beef could be labeled like this: 'Product of the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and/or Uruguay,'" the Register explained.
Consumers Union has a breakdown in PDF form of which foods will and won't have country-of-origin labels.
(Image from iStockphoto, Copyright: Fanch Galivel)