A new regulation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture requiring nutrition labels on raw, single-ingredient poultry products has the poultry industry in Mississippi somewhat mystified — and very concerned.
Effective Jan. 1, 2012, the USDA will require certain poultry products to provide nutrition information on the package or available at the point-of-purchase. The rule is targeting non-consumer-ready poultry cuts, which have never been required to provide such information in the past.
And the agency is fast-tracking the new rule — it didn’t appear in the Federal Register until Dec. 29, 2010.
“More and more busy American families want nutrition information that they can quickly and easily understand,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a statement. He said there is an immediate need “for nutrition labels that will help consumers make informed decisions.”
Still, the industry is asking what is the hurry?
“All of this is kind of out of the blue,” said Dr. Byron Williams, an extension/research professor in Mississippi State University’s Department of Extension Service’s Food Science, Nutrition and Health Promotion. He said to have a rule published in the Federal Register and become effective within one year from date of publication is unusual.
There are exemptions for producers of ground poultry. If a facility produces less than 100,000 pounds of ground meat or poultry products annually and has less than 500 employees the facility is not required to provide nutrition information.
However, ground poultry is not a major product of Mississippi processors. This means practically all Mississippi poultry plants will be required to meet the new labeling requirement.
In its supplemental proposed rule, USDA said it was not offering the exemption to all small poultry processors because the requirements should not impose an economic hardship on small businesses.
The USDA points out that the Food Safety and Inspection Service will make point-of-sale materials available via the Internet at no cost to producers.
The USDA has calculated the cost of the new nutrition labeling requirement at approximately $150 million over a 20-year period.
Williams said he wonders how the USDA arrived at that figure considering the vagueness of the new rule.
Mark Leggett, president of the Mississippi Poultry Association in Jackson, agrees. He doesn’t think the new labeling rule will be a huge cost for the local poultry industry, pointing out that processors already have labels. The processors will simply have to add the new information to the labels.
Still, he has reservations.
“There are a lot of questions and uncertainty about this whole thing,” said Leggett.
And while Leggett does not see the new rule as a huge cost to the local industry, he said any extra production cost is bad news for the industry that entered this year worried about increased production costs.
Ultimately, it will be the consumer who foots the bill for the new labeling requirement. The poultry industry has fared well during the down-turned economy. Chicken is a relatively inexpensive source of protein, and sales to budget-conscious consumers have been healthy. An increase in price would obviously make chicken a less attractive alternative.
Processors can elect to use the pre-calculated nutrition panels, saving them the expense of having to test and identify a product’s nutritional information.But they are allowed to use their own numbers. However, there are USDA requirements to assure the data are accurate. If the data are inaccurate, the processor runs the risk of penalties.
The new requirement is not being completely panned by the industry. The poultry industry has long promoted its products’ healthiness compared to other meats.
The rule is especially targeting ground products, whose leanness is hard to gauge by sight.
“Could this new requirement be beneficial? Certainly it could,” Williams said, “if consumers use it. If consumers do not read the nutrition label, are getting no benefit from it, but are paying for it nonetheless, then it obviously is just an extra expense with no benefit.”
Danny Thornton, Mississippi State University Extension Service poultry science instructor, said, “‘Vague’ is the best way I can describe it. I don’t enough about it — don’t feel versed enough — to give an opinion.”
According to Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who serves on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, the new Congress will take a hard look at the proposed rule.
“The rule issued in December is an effort to give consumers additional information about the nutritional value of meat and poultry,” Cochran said. “As Congress and the administration look at the impact of federal regulations on business operations, I expect that the new rule will be reviewed as it is implemented.”
Poultry has been the state’s leading agriculture commodity for the last 14 consecutive years. Last year, the industry’s value was estimated at $2.5 billion.
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