USDA to speed up new labeling rule for tenderized meat

By Philip Brasher

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WASHINGTON, Feb. 25, 2015 - Special safety labels for mechanically tenderized meat are likely to take effect as soon as 2016, two years earlier than expected, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told lawmakers.

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At a hearing with the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, Vilsack said his department would suspend a regulation that would otherwise prevent the labeling for mechanically tenderized meat to take effect until 2018, because the administration failed to finalize the labeling rule before the end of last year.

“We're going to move the timeline up,” Vilsack told Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.

Vilsack also reiterated to the subcommittee that Congress will need to revise the country-of-origin law for meat unless the administration wins its appeal of a World Trade Organization ruling.

“We either win the appeal or Congress has to change the law,” he told the panel. He suggested Congress would have to rewrite the law to implement some kind of “generic” label that wouldn't require segregation of livestock.

The chairman of the subcommittee, Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., pressed Vilsack to deliver recommendations for changing the COOL law. The omnibus spending bill for fiscal 2015 directed Vilsack to have the recommendations ready by May 1. 

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USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service first proposed the labeling for mechanically tenderized meat in June 2013 out of concern that consumers aren't cooking the meat properly to eliminate pathogens. The meat is tenderized with knives and needles that can drive bacteria inside the product.

USDA officials did not send the final rule to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review until Nov. 21. The regulation remains pending at OMB. Under FSIS labeling regulations, the labeling rule could have taken effect as soon as 2016 only if it had been cleared by OMB and approved by USDA by Dec. 31.

Canada, which was the source of an E. coli outbreak in 2012 that was linked to mechanically tenderized beef, implemented a similar labeling requirement last year.

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