Shoppers in the U.S. will soon have more information about where their meat comes from after new federal labeling rules went into effect Thursday.
The rules require labels on steaks, ribs and other cuts of meat to say where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered. Earlier U.S. Department of Agriculture rules only required that countries of origin to be noted, so a package might say "Produce of U.S. and Canada." Now, the label will specify "Born in Canada, raised and slaughtered in the United States."
The new rules apply only to cuts of meat such as steaks and roasts, not to ground meat.
The USDA has required country of origin labels on seafood since 2005 and on meat and other products since 2009. The new rules for meat are meant to bring the U.S. in line with World Trade Organization standards after the organization determined the old labels discriminated against livestock imported from Canada and Mexico.
President Barack Obama's administration had asked the meat industry in 2009 to voluntarily provide the additional information on labels. The new requirements come after the WTO's appeals body in June upheld the organization's earlier decision.
The meat industry and grocery stores have protested the changes, saying they are a hassle and could lead to higher prices. The National Grocers Association issued a statement expressing its "strong frustration" over what it sees as "unnecessary" regulation.
"The costs of this new change will far exceed the benefits intended and will result in no meaningful consumer benefits," the group's president and CEO, Peter Larkin, said in a statement. "Congress must take action now and create a legislative fix."
The USDA estimates the labeling change will cost somewhere between $53.1 million and $192.1 million to put in place. The National Grocers Association said it expected it to cost at least $100 million as companies buy new signs, labels and labeling machines.
Cargill, one of the nation's largest meatpackers, protested the rules in a letter sent previously to the USDA. It said the U.S. is heavily dependent on cattle born elsewhere but sent to feedlots and slaughterhouses here, and that was more true after last year's drought dropped the U.S. herd to its lowest level in decades.
Cargill said it had already idled a meatpacking plant in Texas because too few cattle were available and the problem would only get worse as imported cattle became less attractive to companies seeking to avoid the need for multiple labels.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association said it didn't think the rules would satisfy Canada and Mexico, the nation's top trading partners, and it feared retaliation with taxes or other restrictions on U.S. beef.
"While trying to make an untenable mandate fit with our international trade obligations, USDA chose to set up U.S. cattle producers for financial losses," the association said in a statement. "Moreover, this rule will place a greater record-keeping burden on producers, feeders and processors through the born, raised and harvested label."
The rules have had support from other farmers' organizations, along with consumer and environmental groups. Nearly 230 signed an April letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, including the National Farmers Union, U.S. Cattlemen's Association and Center for Food Safety.
The National Farmers Union issued a statement Thursday praising the Obama administration for "providing more information on the origins of our food, instead of simply watering down the process."
"Consumers want and have the right to know where their food comes from," it added.
The new labels will begin showing up gradually in grocery stores. Meat processed or packaged before Thursday can still be sold with older labels, and the USDA is allowing meat companies to use up any of the older labels they already had printed.