A new country-of-origin labeling law means cattle producers will shortly have to add detailed record keeping to their routine of roping and riding if they want to avoid some hefty fines, says a New Mexico State University livestock expert.

Labeling regulations included in the 2002 farm bill require producers to start keeping detailed records of the origin of their livestock, said Ron Parker, head of the animal resources department with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service. The guidelines are voluntary now but will become mandatory on Sept. 30, 2004.

“Calves born this year will likely be entering the retail food chain after the law becomes mandatory,” he said. Only cattle born, raised and slaughtered in the United States will qualify for the U.S. label.

The bill as written and as interpreted by U.S. Department of Agriculture wasn't exactly what the beef industry expected. Originally, promoters simply asked for a label stating “Beef: Made in the USA.”

But what actually appeared in the bill was labeling for foreign beef, in addition to domestic beef, veal, pork, lamb, peanuts, fish, and perishable fruits and vegetables, said Clay Mathis, a livestock specialist with NMSU's Extension service.

Poultry is exempt from the new law.

Mixed beef products like hamburger, if it comes from multiple countries, must indicate the order of prominence or origin by weight. The country of origin with the greatest percentage of product will be listed first.

“Today there are more questions than answers,” Parker said. “Presumably, a verifiable audit trail must follow the product through the market process to the retailer.”

USDA has interpreted the new law to mean that this audit trail must follow every animal through the market process to the retailer, he said. But there's a glitch in the reporting process.

“These new regulations indicate that New Mexico's producers can not self-certify that their animals are products of this country,” Parker said. “Apparently, a third party will hold that responsibility.”

Livestock organizations, producers and others are all working together to determine responsibility. “At best, cattle producers are advised to watch developments closely, and, if not already in place, immediately develop a record-keeping system verifying the birth place of all calves,” he said. The records will have to be kept on file for two years.

Retailers and several of the nation's livestock associations say the law adds billions in costs to food suppliers and will lead to a mountain of paperwork. Most cattle producers simply worry that the added paperwork costs will eat into already slim profits.

“If we cattle producers have learned anything, we know that each time a new regulation comes along, processors simply pass that cost along to the producer,” said John Dudley, president of Fort Worth-based Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association president.

“Nothing leads us to believe that this situation will be any different.”

A USDA study has estimated that the labeling requirement will cost $1.9 billion for all sectors of the U.S. economy.

In addition to third-party audits, meatpacking plants will also perform random producer audits. If the meatpacker is fined or penalized because of producer noncompliance, that fine may be charged to the cattle grower.

Eetailers could be subject to penalties up to $10,000 for each violation, along with anyone who supplies commodities covered by the law.