The US Dept. of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has proposed a new rule that would create more explicit standards of identity for raw poultry and meat products to which liquids have been added. Expect the usual fight over whether the agency has gone too far in telling inspected poultry and meat processing companies what they have to do to conform to government regulations.

But the new proposal goes beyond that, and the questions raised in the new rulemaking aren’t that limited – or that easy for the government to answer in a way that makes sense. In fact, questions about the new regulation go beyond the regulation itself, possibly getting into a debate about whether regulatory changes always improve the inspection system for all concerned.

The proposed rule would require that common or usual names of products contain an accurate description of the raw poultry or meat products, the percentage of added solutions to the products and the ingredients the added liquid or solution actually contains. The print on the label describing newly named products would have to be on the label in the same size type, style and color, so they would be more noticeable to consumers buying the products.

Concerns raised

Changes to labeling requirements always raise concerns for processing companies. First, because companies print large numbers of labels ahead of time, any change in labeling requirements can result in wasted labels and printing new ones on the fly.

USDA’s plan would establish common and what it calls easy-to-understand names for raw meat and poultry products that include marinades, injections or other solutions not visible to consumers. The agency is taking this action because it doesn’t think some labels clearly state if a solution has been added to a raw product to enhance the flavor.

Consumers could be buying products with a higher level of sodium than they realize, USDA says. Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, undersecretary for food safety, says consumers should be able to make an informed choice in the store, “which is why we need to provide clear, informative labels to help consumers make the best decisions about feeding their families.”

But the American Meat Institute takes issue with the new proposal, calling it “wasteful” and “unnecessary.” J. Patrick Boyle, AMI president and CEO, says the proposed regulation goes against President Obama’s stance on new regulatory initiatives, which is: “They should solve problems, not create new ones.”

He says the plan would change the labeling of many raw meat and poultry products and add no new information on the label. He notes FSIS has a long-established label approval system requiring regulators to reject false and misleading labels before they are applied to federally inspected meat and poultry products. These labels have been used for years with USDA’s blessings and approval. So, consumers know some ready-to-cook products contain added solutions and longstanding FSIS label regulations require these solutions to be identified on the front of the product next to the identification of the product.

The information is already there; the only change will be bigger type, probably all in capital letters. The other major change will be a cost of about $73 million to the industry to print new labels, which will mean a waste of money, a lot of inconvenience and higher prices for the consumers to pay. Boyle quotes President Obama as warning against new regulations “that are not worth the cost, or that are just plain dumb,” and puts this new proposal in that category.

Critics of the proposal say USDA would be better off looking for real weaknesses existing in the inspection system and consult with its stakeholders, including industry and consumers, about making changes that will strengthen the inspection system. Improvements being made in the food side of the Food and Drug Administration – admittedly a different agency under a different department, responsible for different food products, but with a similar mission – are an example of beneficial steps being taken to strengthen food safety.

As of July 21, a 60-day comment period was established on the proposed regulation. Industry and other parties involved in USDA regulatory initiatives, including consumers, should tell USDA to forget it – and concentrate where the agency can really improve meat/poultry inspection and food safety. Comments can be submitted

Bernard Shire is M&P’s Washington correspondent, a contributing editor and a feature writer based in Lancaster, Pa. Shire also works as a food safety consultant and writer for Shire & Associates LLC.