WASHINGTON (FNS) -- The retail and wholesale supermarket industries say the Agriculture Department, in its second try at proposing a safe-handling and cooking label for meat, still has fallen short of the mark.
In comments filed with the agency's Food Safety and Inspection Service, industry officials, once again, expressed concern with the cost and time requirements of complying with the labeling proposal.
Several officials also complained that the label's placement on nonground meat and poultry, along with its graphics, are likely to confuse consumers.
The comment period closed Dec. 20.
The labeling program has been the target of controversy since it was first proposed in August. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy urged quick implementation of the labeling program in light of a food poisoning outbreak last year tied to undercooked hamburger meat sold at a fast food restaurant. Four people died and several hundred others became ill as a result.
However, a food industry lawsuit blocked the program's initial Oct. 15 implementation date after a federal judge ruled USDA hadn't demonstrated an emergency need and thus violated the Administrative Procedures Act by rushing the label into service. The agency then went back to the drawing board, proposing a label almost identical to the first final rule.
In its comments, the Food Marketing Institute expressed concern about USDA's timetable. It calls for an implementation date 30 days after a final regulation is published, which is expected by the end of January.
The labels would be required first on ground meat and poultry. All other raw and partially cooked meat products would have to be labeled by April 15, but until then
in-store pamphlets or signage is required.
"FMI is concerned that the short comment period in this rulemaking and the proposed 30 days effective date will prevent FSIS from conducting a thorough analysis of the comments filed and will preclude FSIS from modifying the rule in response to the comments. It will also make industry compliance extremely difficult," wrote FMI President Tim Hammonds.
Hammonds, among others, questioned the need to have non-ground meat labeled since the concern over bacteria has been centered on ground product. "There is no evidence that a significant health risk exists for non-ground products," he said.
"Labeling all meat products would fail to call consumer attention to ground products," he said. "Experience tells us that labeling where the information serves no useful purpose simply encourages consumers to ignore all such information," he continued, "and therefore substantially defeats the purpose of this proposed rule."
In a written statement, Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., also criticized the widespread use of the labels.
"To blanket every package in the meat case with the same message over and over would in effect make the message invisible because it would be so repetitive. The regulation should apply to ground meats only, with voluntary labeling for all other meat and poultry products."
Bruce Gates, vice president of government relations for the National-American Wholesale Grocers' Association, called the scope of the labeling plan "overbroad," questioning the effectiveness of the label itself. He called on the agency to provide more scientific information regarding the risk of bacterial contamination for non-ground meat.
NAWGA, along with the National Grocers Association and the Texas Food Industry Association, had filed the lawsuit which ultimately blocked the initial labeling proposal.
Getting the new labels out in time is also a worry for some.
"The production of our labels takes approximately three months from design to printing of the film. There will be no way to incorporate the new [label] within 30 days from the date the new rule is published," wrote Susan Egger, technical director of Signature Foods Inc., Omaha, Neb.
At a minimum, several officials asked that the April 15 labeling deadline for labeling non-ground meat be postponed until July 6, the deadline for meat products to be labeled under the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act.