North Dakota lawmakers passed a Country of Origin Label law in 1999 for fresh meat. It's one of eight states with state-based labeling law.
Grocery stores aren't required to label each package, but they must post signs saying where the meat was produced.
Byron Diesen, a meat manager at a Fargo supermarket, says consumers do read the labels.
"Especially like when there was the scare in Canada with the BSE and stuff like that," said Diesen.
“I think as customers start seeing that Country of Origin labeling on more and more items, more of this fresh meat or perishable items, then they'll start looking for it.”Doug Johnson
Concerns about food safety issues, like mad cow disease, are what prompted the Country of Origin legislation on the federal level.
Diesen says consumers seem increasingly interested in where their meat comes from, and more are asking for locally grown meat, but there's no data about consumer response to the North Dakota law.
Fargo Environmental Health Inspector Doug Johnson thinks most consumers just aren't aware of the labels.
"I think as customers start seeing that Country of Origin labeling on more and more items, more of this fresh meat or perishable items, then they'll start looking for it," said Johnson, whose office is responsible for enforcing the North Dakota labeling law.
The federal law requires Country of Origin labels on fresh meat. Processed meat like bacon or deli meat won't have a label. The country of origin will also need to be listed on fresh produce and seafood.
The law passed Congress in 2002, but took years to implement. Seafood was the first category to bear the labels in 2005.
The new labels mean consumers might need to learn to interpret what they see. Doug Johnson points to a package of frozen cod. The package says it's Alaskan cod, but a product of China. "Interesting isn't it," said Johnson. "Alaskan pollock caught off the coast of Alaska by a Chinese-owned ship."
Fish caught in Alaskan waters might be labeled as from China or Japan. Beef raised in Canada can be labeled as a product of the U.S. if the animal spends at least 30 days at a U.S. feedlot.
The federal labeling law gives retailers discretion in how they label food. At the meat counter they could simply list all the countries where meat is produced, or they could label each cut.
According to North Dakota State University Livestock Economist Tim Petry, that means the law won't necessarily help consumers know where the meat comes from.
"The benefit for consumers is that they could know where it came from," said Petry. "But since the law allows multi-country labeling, say, 'A product of U.S., Mexico and Canada', then a label would not be very informative to them I suspect.'"
Petry says it's unclear if consumers are willing pay a premium for U.S. grown meat or produce. If they won't, then retailers are likely to only meet the basic requirements of the law.
Petry expects farmers and ranchers, not consumers, will pay for the labeling law. He expects meat packers to push the cost back to the farm.
The USDA has opposed Country of Origin Labeling, and says it will cost at least $2 billion a year to implement. The General Accounting Office says that cost estimate is inflated.
But the law will require much more record keeping. Farmers will need to sign a legal affidavit for each animal they sell.
Livestock economist Tim Petry, says that document will need to follow the animal through feedlots, packing plants and to the supermarket meat case.
"One of the problems is a 600 pound steer leaving Minnesota or North Dakota does not end up as that single steer in a store," said Petry. "So the dilemma a retailer has is if they sell a steak in New York City they could be asked to trace that all the way back to a North Dakota farm."
Country of Origin Labels should start showing up in the supermarket next month, but it's expected to take a year to work out all the bugs in the new system.
If You Go: Country of Origin Labeling Informational Session
October 7, 2008 1:30p.m.
Holiday Inn Hotel and Suites Minneapolis - Lakeville, MN
For more information contact Martin E. O'Connor at (202) 720-4486 or e-mail to Martin.OConnor@usda.gov.