The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a press release today stating that the final rule for mandatory country of origin labeling, published in January 2009, will go into effect on March 16, as scheduled.

Accompanying the press release was an "open letter" from Agriculture Secretary Vilsack to industry officials encouraging voluntary adoption of additional labeling descriptors identifying where animals were born, raised and slaughtered; more restrictive inventory practices relating to the origin of ground product; and the expansion of country of origin labeling to certain categories of processed products exempted under USDA's final rule.

The letter suggests the following voluntary labeling changes:

  1. Labeling of product from animals with multiple countries of origin. Processors are being asked to include information about what production step -- born, raised and slaughtered -- occurred in each country when the animal from which the product was derived has multiple countries of origin. For example, if the animal was born in country X and raised and slaughtered in country Y, the label should indicate that distinction.
  2. The letter states that the definition of processed foods contained in the Final Rule “may be too broadly” drafted. Thus, Secretary Vilsack suggests labeling products that “are subject to curing, smoking, broiling, grilling, or steaming” as well.
  3. The final rule allows a label for a ground meat product to bear the name of a country so long as meat from that country was present in the processor’s inventory within the last 60 days. The letter suggests that time allowance be reduced to 10 days.

AMI President and CEO J. Patrick Boyle issued the following statement in response to USDA’s open letter:

“We are gratified that the Department of Agriculture will allow the final rule implementing mandatory country of origin labeling to go into effect on March 16, 2009, as scheduled. AMI and its member companies actively participated in the six year rulemaking proceeding, which initially produced an interim final rule in 2008 and this final rule in 2009, to help develop regulations and prepare for the implementation of the final rule.

When the final rule becomes effective, we anticipate that almost 95 percent of beef and pork products eligible to bear a ‘Product of the USA’ label will bear such labeling.

To the extent that companies are able and elect to go beyond these federal labeling requirements, as requested today by Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, is an individual company decision, which will have to be made in collaboration with a company’s retail grocery customers, which ultimately are the entities that provide country of origin information to their consumers.“

To see a copy of the USDA letter in its entirety, click here.