WASHINGTON (AP)--A new system of labeling food so consumers can see which country it was grown and processed in could cost farmers and the food industry an estimated $2 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The estimate was published Nov. 21 in the Federal Register. The government is seeking public comment on ways to minimize the cost of the program.

The Food Marketing Institute said Nov. 25 the program is expensive for farmers and manufacturers who have to keep records so meat, fish and other products can be labeled with their country of origin. The institute warned consumers' wallets will get hit as the food industry tries to offset the costs.

"Much of the burden will fall ultimately on consumers in higher costs for the hundreds of products that must be labeled in this program," said Tim Hammonds, president and CEO of the institute, an organization of retailers and wholesalers.

The government issued guidelines in October for the food industry to mark products with their country of origin--a system set up by the farm bill approved in May. The program is voluntary for two years but will become mandatory.

The guidelines allow retailers to mark designated goods as products of the United States if they meet certain standards. For meat such as beef, it means the animals must be born, raised and slaughtered in this country.

Food products of mixed origin would carry labels noting the separate countries, according to the guidelines.

Hammonds said the system is confusing for consumers because some food is raised and slaughtered or processed in different countries. Some beef, for example, is born in the United States, raised in Canada and slaughtered by U.S. packers.

Farm groups such as the American Farm Bureau Federation favored the labeling program because it would allow consumers to distinguish U.S.-made food from products made by competitors.

The Nebraska-based farm group, Organization for Competitive Markets, said the program's benefits will outweigh the costs.

"Producers will now have the opportunity to showcase U.S.-produced products which are produced and processed under the most demanding food safety system in the world," the group's president, Fred Stokes, said in a Nov. 25 statement.

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