A voluntary system for the labelling of beef as "Made in the U.S.A." has been given the go-ahead by supermarkets and meat packers, heralding a decisive victory for cattle industry representatives, who have campaigned for over a year. A consortium of cattlemen, commodity and industry groups have presented a petition to the Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) last Friday (8 September) for further consideration.

Currently, around 90% of the meat packages sold in the US contain domestic produce, but cattle producers, meat packers and supermarket retailers are convinced that a labelling system will increase sales further. John Motley, senior vice-president of the Food Marketing Institute, explained: "There is a belief that in the minds of the American public there is the perception that U.S.-raised beef is higher quality. We're certainly willing to test that premise." The labelled beef would be more expensive, with consumers incurring the costs involved in the certification programme, but Motley commented: "I do expect to see it nation-wide."

Major food supermarkets Wal-Mart, Albertson's and Safeway have already expressed interest in the new labelling system, with several regional chains, such as Royal Ahold, based in the Northeast, and H.E.B, which owns stores across Texas, following suit. The petition has also been signed by the American Farm Bureau Federation, the Food Marketing Institute, the National Meat Association, and the American Meat Institute. It signals the first time that cattle producers have been able to gain cooperation from meat packers and retailers, despite a prolonged campaign for country-of-origin labels.

George Hall, a cattle producer from Mustang and president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, defended the system as a value decision on the 36m cattle slaughtered annually in the US: "We believe that the American cattle industry produces the tastiest and best beef in the world. Providing a distinction between US beef and imported beef could give US consumers greater knowledge about the products they consume."

US farmers have long been pushing legislation in congress to curb cattle imports from Canada and now, it seems, have turned to the public to abate their competition. A loophole in the voluntary system will allow the Mexican cattle, which make up about 1m of the cattle killed annually, to carry the "Made in U.S.A." label if they are imported 100 days prior to slaughter. Stocks from Canada are commonly fattened before crossing the boarder and slaughtered relatively quickly however, so they would not qualify.

The certification programme has yet to gain approval by the USDA however, which would be responsible for the labels. It already deals with the establishment of grades and classifications for agricultural products, using the marks USDA prime, choice and select indiscriminately on domestic or imported produce. Despite polls commissioned by producers' groups, which indicate that US meat-eaters prefer home grown produce, the department is sceptical that the public will be swayed by the new labels; reference has been made to the results of a January study which show that there is no actual evidence that consumers would pay more for meat marked with its country of origin. Officials from the USDA declined to comment yesterday (13 September) but said they had not yet reviewed the petition.