Saturday, March 14, 2009

Obama says he's closing a loophole to make beef safer; also, a push for voluntary origin labeling

President Obama said in his weekly address today that as part of a broader effort for food safety, "Our Agriculture Department is closing a loophole in the system to ensure that diseased cows don’t find their way into the food supply." Obama didn't explain, but the department issued a press release saying that it was banning the slaughter of "downer" cattle, those that cannot stand on their own. The rule, which was held up during the last days of the Bush administration, follows the largest meat recall in U.S. history, prompted by Humane Society of the United States videos showing abuse of downer cattle at a slaughterhouse.

"Most disabled cattle were banned from the U.S. food supply in January 2004 after the discovery of the first U.S. case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which has been linked to downer cattle," reports Dan Eggen of The Washington Post. "But the Bush administration allowed exceptions and did not follow through on promises to plug the loophole last year after the uproar over the beef recall." For the USDA release, click here.

Before the release was issued, Obama's line seemed related to a story this week on BNet Food, by Christina Salerno. Using the same terminology as Obama, she wrote, "The Obama administration is working to close what it considers a loophole in food labeling rules to give consumers a better idea of where their food comes from. New labeling regulations were originally announced under Bush, but the former president’s version didn’t require meat companies to name an animal’s production location." The regulations take effect Monday.

Salerno didn't use the term, but she was referring to the Country Of Origin Labeling program in the 2008 Farm Bill. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told industry representatives last month that he would allow the Bush regulations to go forward, to prevent delay, but said he was "concerned about the regulation's treatment of product from multiple countries, exemptions provided to processed food, and time allowances ... for labeling ground meat." Critics of the rule have said it allows packers to label ground meat as coming from multiple countries. Vilsack asked that processors voluntarily specify on labels where animals were born, raised and slaughtered; and limit to 10 days instead of 60 the time a country label can be used on ground meat after there is no longer meat from that country in the processor's inventory.

Perhaps most importantly, Vilsack said the department "would be closely reviewing [processors'] performance in relation to these suggestions for voluntary action. Depending on this performance, I will carefully consider whether modifications to the rule will be necessary to meet the intent of Congress." In other words, do more now or risk being forced to do it later. To read Vilsack's letter, click here. The rules apply to "muscle cuts, ground beef (including veal), pork, lamb, goat, and chicken," Salerno notes, as well as "wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish, as well other commodities like fruits and vegetables."

We first reported the administration's action Feb. 24. For the underlying story, by Lisa Keefe of MeatingPlace, click here. For a report from the Institute of Food Technologists, with links to other coverage, click here.

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