WASHINGTON (FNS) -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to deploy inspectors to stores in six cities May 31 to survey whether supermarkets are complying with the long-debated new federal regulations for labeling meat with safe-handling instructions.
On May 27 all ground meat products must carry the labels. The deadline for labeling nonground meat is July 6.
Inspectors with USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service will go to one supermarket in each of the cities. The cities targeted will be Atlanta, Ga.; Seattle, Wash.; Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn.; Kansas City, Mo., and Washington. The agency wouldn't name the supermarkets to be targeted.
According to John McCutcheon, deputy administrator for food safety inspection, inspectors won't initially cite stores if the proper labels aren't being used. Under federal law, meats that are mislabeled can be seized.
"If they aren't labeled we will talk to management and give them a handout about the labeling regulations," McCutcheon said. "We won't take punitive action at that point. We will put them on a list to be inspected at a later date." Should a store fail a second inspection, McCutcheon said store management will be given a "reasonable opportunity" to add labels.
Some retailers have already been affixing labels, while others are getting their programs together in order to meet the compliance date.
William Vitulli, vice president of government relations, A&P, Montvale, N.J., which operates stores in Atlanta, said his company is already in compliance with the new regulation for ground meat products.
"And we already have labels ready to go out for the July 6 regulation deadline," he said.
"We are in the process now of converting the scales in some of our stores to print labels that include everything. That is the handling instructions, as well as weight and other information. We figure converting the scales will offset the cost of labor."
Al Kober, meat, seafood buyer-merchandiser for Clemens Markets, Kulpsville, Pa., said the 12-unit company will be ready to label all its meat products by May 27th, but expects it will be costly.
"I estimate that it will cost $2,000 a store. Part of that cost is in inventory of labels we can't use any more. The rest of it is in down time while we're converting the scales. Where we can't convert the scales, we are having new labels printed up."
Jo Natale, coordinator of consumer services for Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., which operates 48 stores, said the company is already applying the labels.
"We are putting them on the top of the package, rather than on the bottom because we save a little time by not having to turn it over," she said. The chain is also considering converting its scales to print the safe-handling information.
However, while retailers have generally agreed that a program to educate consumers about safe handling of meat products is a good thing, some have questioned the long-term effectiveness of the labels.