WASHINGTON -- After an aborted start last fall, followed by various delays, retailers and suppliers are once again being told by the federal government that they must gear up to have instructional labels on meat telling consumers how to handle it safely.
The Department of Agriculture issued its final regulation on March 23, which will be published in the Federal Register and go into effect 60 days thereafter.
The regulation mandates that all raw or partially cooked ground meat and poultry must bear safe-handling labels. All other whole meat and poultry items that require some cooking must have the label by July 6.
The label, first proposed last August, was sent back to the drawing board following a successful lawsuit brought by the National Grocers' Association, the National-American Wholesale Grocers Association and the Texas Food Industry Association. The suit challenged the legal procedure under which the label was being implemented.
While most food industry leaders were pleased with changes that have been made to the regulation since it was first introduced in August, there were other points that were not resolved to everyone's satisfaction.
"We thought there should be some sort of sunset to the bill and there should be at least a time when the U.S. Department of Agriculture would step back and say, 'Well, we've had these labels on meat packages for X amount of time,' and see if customers know how to use ground beef [properly]," said Mary Moore, director of public relations for D'Agostino Supermarkets, Larchmont, N.Y. She was voicing an opinion also
put forth by others in the food industry.
She said because of the expense and effort involved in applying the labels, the effectiveness of the program should be reviewed periodically. The 25-store chain estimated costs at $250,000 per year to apply the labels; $25,000 for printing and $225,000 for labor.
Again echoing others in the industry, including the Food Marketing Institute, the National Grocers Association and the National-American Wholesale Grocers' Association, Moore said, "We thought it should be limited to ground product because that is where the problem is."
Modifications that were welcomed by industry members include USDA's decision to allow labels to be placed on the bottom of packages rather than mandating that they be on top, and the creation of one label that can be used for meat and poultry, rather than two separate labels. Several meat executives have commented that the two labels, as first proposed last August, would have created unnecessary additional costs.
In USDA's announcement of the label late last month, Agriculture Secretary Espy praised retailers who are already using the labels. Many of these stores rushed to comply with the original proposal, which was blocked by the lawsuit on the eve of its implementation.
"I applaud those who are voluntarily using this label. They recognize its importance and what it can do to help and educate consumers," Espy said.
The required label includes information on cooking and storing raw meats and refrigerating leftovers.
As noted by Espy, many retailers had continued to apply labels and issue other forms of safe handling information while the details of the regulation were being finalized. Others put their programs on hold and will now have to start anew.
Michael Yakovsky, operations manager for Brookshire Bros., Lufkin, Texas, a 62-store chain, said his company already has been using labels on some of its meat items.
"At this point we are putting an adhesive-backed label on the packages, and since Day One we have been offering pamphlets with safe handling instructions for ground meat."
While he thinks the program is a positive one "overall," Yakovsky said, "We are finding there isn't a whole lot of consumer response one way or another. There has not been a whole lot of comment.
"But we do plan to be in full compliance, even before the rule becomes effective."
He said while the program is costly, he doesn't anticipate passing on the price of the labels to consumers. "In our area, with the competition, it is not possible to pass on costs into the meat prices. We are just taking the burden of the costs internally."
At Phoenix-based Abco Markets, the company decided to hold off applying labels until the final rule was released. In the interim, the retailer has been offering informational pamphlets in its stores.
"The bottom line is we currently aren't doing it because we want to do the right thing," said Ken Davidson, director-merchandiser of meat for the 75-store chain.
He said the chain is "positioned and prepared to move pretty quickly" to implement a labeling program.
And of course, he said, there will be some additional costs to fund the program. However, he doesn't expect to see it reflected in retail meat prices, but rather incorporated overall as another business expense.
However, Moore of D'Agostino fears retail meat prices could be driven up as a result. "How can we absorb cost? You can't do that, not on the kind of margins we operate on," said Moore.
"I think providing customers with good, safe food handling information is important, but I think it can be done in a better, more voluntary way."
P&C Markets, a 61-store operator in Syracuse, N.Y., had started applying separate labels for meat and poultry back in the fall when first mandated. After its supply ran out, the retailer decided to discontinue the program until USDA issued a final ruling.
"We used up our supply, but we have not been without them long," said Sue Hosey, vice president of consumer affairs. "It is now down to one label, and we can get into it pretty quickly again."
For the short term, she said, the company will use adhesive labels, but is considering using a film wrap, which could require new equipment or adjustments to its current equipment.