WASHINGTON (FNS) -- Final regulations for safe-handling labels for meat products sold in grocery stores will likely be issued by the end of next month. That is according to Jill Hollingsworth, assistant to the administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Hollingsworth said the labels, first proposed late last summer, are likely to have few changes from the proposed format, although comments about them will be taken into consideration.
The retail industry has been poised to comply with the labeling regulations since Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy first proposed a mandatory labeling program. In a ruling stemming from a food industry lawsuit the program's initial Oct. 15 implementation date was blocked one day before the law was to go into effect. The judge criticized the program's scope and lack of notice for retailers to comply. Immediately following the judge's ruling, USDA reissued almost the identical labeling regulation proposal for review. It calls for retailers to label all ground-meat and poultry products with labels detailing how to handle the product safely. Two months after those labels are put into place, such labels are to be put on all meat products.
USDA has missed its projected mid-January deadline for the final labeling program. The agency had targeted mid-April as the date the regulation would go into effect.
The label is part of Espy's agenda to eradicate bacterial contamination of meat and poultry. It was proposed after a break-out of illness and several deaths traced to consumption of undercooked hamburgers contaminated with E. coli bacteria. Hollingsworth didn't elaborate on details on the revised labeling proposal, including whether it continues to mandate labels on nonground meat.
The National-American Wholesale Grocers' Association, one of the three industry groups that successfully challenged the labeling proposal last fall, would oppose any final regulation that encompasses whole meat, said Bruce Gates, NAWGA's vice president for public affairs.
"We have a long-standing concern regarding the scope of the regulation. The USDA has failed to show on a scientific basis why nonground meat should be included," Gates said.
The Food Marketing Institute, in a Feb. 24 letter to the Office of Management and Budget, said the group endorsed the intent underlying the proposal, but that it also considers the proposed rule "far too burdensome." The rule will be "very costly for both our industry and, ultimately, consumers," Tim Hammonds, president of FMI, said in the letter.
FMI asked that labels be required only on ground meats and that a provision be included to review the law at least once every 24 months.
"There ought to be a point in the future when such labels are no longer required. Surely, over time, consumers will have gotten the message that they need to cook their meat to avoid the possibility of illness -- a message the supermarket industry is reinforcing on a voluntary basis with large in-store signs, posters and brochures," Hammonds wrote.
Some retailers contacted by SN said they have gone forward with voluntary programs telling consumers, via labels on packages, how they should handle meat products to avoid contamination.
For instance, George Baker, director of meat merchandising, Nash Finch, Minneapolis, said the company has continued to label meats in all its corporately owned stores.
"Our approach to the issue was that this is a particular program that gives the consumer an opportunity to understand how to properly handle our [meat] products," said Baker.
Since the company first began labeling product, said Baker, "a lot of our independents have quit using them, but we are encouraging them to get back on it, because it is going to be law, so they should get used to it."
Katherine Bird, spokeswoman for the 258-store Bruno's Co., Birmingham, Ala., said the company is using safe-handling labels now.
Harvest Food Stores, Little Rock, Ark., is now placing labels on ground-meat products, said Clyde Godwin, buyer of meat and seafood for the 54-store chain.
Winn-Dixie Stores, Jacksonville, Fla., is placing labels on ground meats only, said Mickey Clerc, vice president and director of public relations.
Charlie Bergh, group vice president of perishables for Ralph's Grocery Co., Compton, Calif., said the chain has been applying labels to ground-meat products in its 160 stores.
Waremart, Salem, Ore., also has been placing labels on ground meat and poultry, said Bill Mason, director of meat products.
John Story, director, meat and deli operations, for Fairway Foods, Northfield, Minn., said his company has not issued labels and is still waiting for the final regulations from USDA. However, the company has continued to offer customers safe-handling information using pamphlets handed out at store level.
A buyer for Jewel-Osco Foods, Albuquerque, N.M., said the chain initially put labels on its meat products, but then decided to stop the program until the final rule is issued.