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Labels to say if beef's born in the USA

Attention, grocery shoppers: You'll soon know the nationality of your steak, potatoes and kumquats.

A federal law that takes effect Tuesday will require supermarkets to display the country of origin for meat, produce and certain kinds of nuts.

Some foods will be exempt, including processed foods such as breaded chicken or packages of mixed vegetables. Still, the rule likely is welcome news for consumers.

The labeling rule, included in the 2008 Farm Bill passed this summer, applies to products sold in grocery stores and mass-merchandise outlets. It effectively exempts small food outlets and such places as butcher shops, restaurants and school cafeterias.

Consumer-advocacy groups have pushed for origin labeling for years, saying it can help shoppers avoid food from countries with lax safety regulations

Consumers might not see all labels in place by next week. Meat, nuts and produce that were produced or packaged before Tuesday do not have to be labeled. Food producers will have a six-month grace period. After that, producers will be subject to fines of $1,000 per violation.

The new rules apply to meat from cows, lambs, chickens, pigs and goats, as well as to fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, ginseng, macadamia nuts, pecans and peanuts.

The labels won't apply to meat or produce that has been cooked or processed, such as corned beef and sausage.

Consumer-advocacy groups and food-industry associations underline that labeling won't guarantee food safety.

“While it's tempting to demonize food from other places, we've seen over the years that there are problems with the domestic food supply as well,” says Sarah Klein, an attorney in the food-safety program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit consumer-advocacy group.

Fish and shellfish have carried labels since 2005 indicating country of origin and whether the products are wild or farm-raised.

That has been a boon for some American producers, says Mark Vinsel, executive director of United Fishermen of Alaska. He says consumers have been willing to pay a premium for Alaska wild salmon in light of recent food-safety scares involving fish from China and Chile.

U.S. producers of other food products hope to get similar benefits.

“We believe consumers will seek out the U.S. product,” says Bill Bullard, chief executive of R-CALF USA, a trade group for cattle producers. The Agriculture Department estimates that it will cost $2.5 billion to come into compliance during the first year.

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