When Obama began his presidency, he pledged transparency. And last week, the USDA had new regulations go into effect for labels of origin. The labels of origin will be put on beef, pork, lamb, chicken, goat meat, fish and shellfish products, noting which country the product came from.
When I heard about the new rules, I contacted Regina Weiss, from the NPO Sustainable Table, which produces a plethora of approachable information about sustainability, from guides to movies.
Westword: So, now that the label of origin rule is in effect, should we expect to see labels
on everything immediately?
Regina Weiss: Yes, because interim regulations have been in effect for quite some time and meat wholesalers have had plenty of notice to put the systems in place and get this done. If the labels are not in place, I would expect consumers to complain. While it's true that the USDA does not have enough inspectors and has not thus far done a good job of enforcement, we are hopeful that this will change under a new administration.
WW: What do you think this will do to the meat industries affected by this?
RW: Well, clearly, U.S. meat farmers are hoping it will reduce foreign competition and perhaps increase demand for U.S. meat overseas. That will only happen if U.S. meat producers clean up their act, however. If U.S. meat regains a reputation for being safe and of high quality, the U.S. label could become a selling point in other nations. Regarding domestic consumption, most of the meat the U.S. imports is from Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina, but there's a fairly large "other" category used by the USDA, so there may be some meat in there from countries that people would prefer not to buy from, either for ideological/political reasons or for food-safety concerns. And with the new labeling, consumers will be able to make those decision. This could, in theory, increase domestic demand for U.S. meat, especially sustainably raised meat, which is safer than factory farmed meat. It also means that people who, right now, don't want to buy meat from Australia, New Zealand or elsewhere because of the food miles involved will be able to make those choices, which could increase demand for U.S. meat.
WW: Do you think this law is just the beginning of labels of origin? Or is this in effect for other aspects of the food world -- for example, produce?
RW: The labeling covers wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables -- but not mixed vegetables -- macadamia nuts, pecans, ginseng, and peanuts, as well as meats. The USDA website has very detailed information (if a bit confusing).
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WW: Where does this fall in with sustainability?
RW: A central tenet of sustainable food is that it is raised close to home. Of course, if it's CAFO meat, or GMO corn raised with huge quantities of polluting pesticides and fertilizers close to home, that is not sustainable. However, the sustainable food movement is about rebuilding local and regional food networks. The ideal is to have food raised with sustainable practices and distributed as locally as possible.
WW: Where does this law sit with your organization?
RW: We are pro-consumer, which means we believe that the more information everyone has about the food they eat, including where it comes from and how it was raised, the better. The law could certainly be stronger, require labeling of even more products, such as those served in institutions, but it certainly is a step in the right direction.