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WASHINGTON - After holding the regulations up for one last review, the Obama administration gave final clearance for the mandatory country-of- origin labeling rules to go into effect March 16.

"I strongly support country-of-origin labeling - it's a critical step toward providing consumers with additional information about the origin of their food," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a Feb. 20 statement. "The Department of Agriculture will be closely reviewing industry compliance with the rule and will evaluate the practicality of the suggestions for voluntary action in my letter."

On Feb. 20, Secretary Vilsack published an "open letter" inviting the meat industry to follow voluntary labeling practices, such as labeling products from multiple countries and narrowing the definition of processed foods, which are exempt from labeling.

Though USDA is asking the meat industry to make voluntary labeling changes, "we shouldn't be complacent" and think that it will not "spill over to the produce," said Kathy Means, vice president for government relations and public affairs for the Produce Marketing Association. But for now, USDA is ordering no changes from the Jan. 15 rule, she added.

The Obama administration requested a review of Bush administration regulations, and the latest action clears the way for country-of-origin labeling for muscle cuts and ground beef (including veal), pork, lamb, goat, and chicken; wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish; fresh fruits and vegetables; peanuts, pecans, macadamia nuts, and ginseng sold by designated retailers.