WASHINGTON (AP) -- Farm groups are protesting the Agriculture Department's use of a new food labeling law, saying it has loopholes that could confuse consumers about where their meat comes from.
National Farmers Union President Tom Buis and other farm groups said last week the department has written the law -- which passed with widespread support in the federal farm bill earlier this year -- in a way that will allow meatpackers to avoid labeling packages of meat as exclusively U.S. products.
The law is scheduled to take effect at the end of the month.
At issue are the new country of origin labels on fresh meats, an issue long debated by Congress.
The labels are favored by High Plains ranchers who own small operations and compete with Canadian beef. The leading opponents have been grocery stores and large meatpacking companies -- many of whom mix U.S. and Mexican beef -- and other businesses involved in getting products to supermarkets.
Those groups have said the tracking and the paperwork needed to comply with the law is would be too burdensome and would lead to higher prices. They agreed to a compromise that ended up in this year's farm law.
The compromise laid out different types of labels, including one that would tag meat from animals that are born, raised and slaughtered in the United States as products of this country. Another label would spell out multiple countries of origin, such as "Product of U.S., Mexico and Canada."
Farm groups say the new law as written by the Agriculture Department would allow meatpackers to simply use the latter label day in, day out.
That means beef and pork that was born, raised and slaughtered in the United States could get put under a label that lists multiple countries of origin. While that makes it easier and cheaper for the meatpackers, it eliminates the competitive advantage for ranchers who raise the U.S. meat.
"USDA has created a loophole big enough to drive a truck through, violating the spirit, letter and intent of the law and deceiving consumers who have consistently shown support for buying U.S. products," Buis said. "This is about truth in labeling."
Billy Cox, a spokesman for the Agriculture Department's Agricultural Marketing Service, said the law is still under discussion. "We do take it seriously," he said of the farm groups' complaints.
Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said the department "seems to be taking liberty with their interpretation" of the law passed by Congress.
"That goes against the spirit of the law and the negotiated settlement between producer and packing industry representatives," Harkin said.
North Dakota Farmers Union President Robert Carlson agreed. "To allow meat packers to exploit this loophole means USDA is catering to the packers, rather than following the intent of Congress, consumers, farmers and ranchers," he said.