(Feb. 20, 12:15 p.m.) Fresh-cut processors could soon face new guidance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that differs from the agency’s final rule on mandatory country-of-origin labeling.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack abruptly cancelled a Feb. 18 news conference amid speculation the Obama administration would provide new guidance to the meat industry — and possibly fresh produce and other commodities — concerning the White House’s expectations for industry compliance with the mandatory country-of-origin labeling law.

Through Feb. 19, fresh produce industry lobbyists said no one from the USDA has spelled out the implications for fresh produce in regard to any of the new administration’s guidance.

The final regulation for the country-of-origin labeling law is scheduled to become law March 16, but Vilsack had meetings and teleconferences Feb. 17 with farm groups, meat industry associations and general farm organizations about a letter of guidance that asks the food industry to go beyond the letter of the law.

One Washington source, speaking on condition of confidentiality — and not affiliated with a produce association — said consumer and farm groups were told on Feb. 17 that USDA is going to put out a “letter of guidance.”

“If (the industry doesn’t follow the letter of guidance, he will go back in and change the rule,” the source said.

The Feb. 17 conference call reportedly included consumer groups, meat packers, the National Farmers Union and the American Farm Bureau Federation. However, key stakeholders were absent, including fresh produce lobbyists and cattle, pork and chicken industry interests.

Based on the conference call, the source said Vilsack’s letter will address what constitutes processing.

“In the past, if you had a bag of peas it had to be labeled, but if you had a bag of peas and carrots, it didn’t have to be labeled,” the source said. “That’s not going to be the case anymore — the threshold for being processed is going to be raised, so more products will have to be country-of-origin labeled.”

In addition, the source indicated that the USDA’s guidance also wants roasted peanuts to be labeled for country of origin. Under current regulation only raw peanuts have to be labeled for country of origin.

For meat packers, USDA’s guidance will ask packers to state more detail on retail meat packages, such as: “born in Canada” or “raised and slaughtered in the United States,” the source said. “It is going to have to specify an action with a country instead of a broad multicountry label,” the source said.

The source said consumer groups approve of that guidance, but Canada, Mexico and some the packers won’t like it at all.

“It will discourage (packers) from purchasing Canadian anything, Mexican anything.,” the source said.

Uncertain authority

The Washington lobbyist said food industry officials were confused about what authority the letter of guidance might have.

“Folks are asking questions about the fact if the guidance doesn’t match with the regulation, you have a problem on your hands,” the source said. “Most companies’ lawyers are going to tell them to follow the regulation and not a letter of guidance.”

Kathy Means, vice president of public relations and public affairs for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, said it would be confusing for the industry if guidance differed from the agency’s regulation.

The letter of guidance had not yet been released by the USDA as of Feb. 19. Billy Cox, spokesman for the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, said he could provide no new information Feb. 19 about any update relating to country of origin labeling guidance or regulations.