After years of delayed implementation, “country of origin labeling,” or COOL, is now set to take effect, requiring food retailers to disclose where many types of produce, meat and other food products are from.
COOL, is a longtime goal of U.S. farmers and ranchers that are hopeful that identifying imported foods may help encourage manufacturers to use more U.S. food products and less imported foods.
While the new regulations will provide consumers with more information about where their food comes from, there is also likely to be confusion, as customers – and experts – attempt to understand what is covered and what is not.
Consumer advocates and some lawmakers are concerned that loopholes will allow meatpackers to blur the distinction between foreign and domestic meat. Mixed vegetables are exempt from the new requirements, as well as processed foods including bacon, breaded chicken, Spam and roasted peanuts.
Lawmakers say more regulations may be needed.
Overall, consumer and food safety advocates are pleased with the rules and glad they are finally going into effect after so many delays. Yet still, they expect the new guidelines to be confusing for some.
According to a survey conducted last year, consumers favor the new labeling changes and most think it will help them to make safer food choices. Only five percent were opposed.
Some companies have already begun voluntarily providing information. More than 50 percent of fruit and vegetable products carry origin labels, according to the United States Fresh Fruit Association.
Meat companies are opposed to the new rules because they feel it will result in additional expenses for labor, labels and changes to facilities that will be required to separate foreign and domestic food products. They also argue that current imports are inspected by the government.
Congress delayed implementation in 2004 and yet again in 2006 to respond to concerns. Efforts to put COOL into effect finally succeeded after food scares involving several products from China and beef from Canada made it a safety issue.
The 2008 farm bill, passed in June revived COOL, adding chicken, ginseng, more nuts, fresh produce and red meat.
“The lack of clearly defined rules creates confusion in the marketplace, which is not the intent,” said Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America.
The Food Marketing Institute, a retail trade group, has raised concerns about this law from the outset and what is covered – for instance, chicken but not turkey, and supermarkets but not butcher shops, said Deborah White, chief legal officer.
COOL requirements have been stuck in progress for years, with implementation having been delayed several times. The law was first established when Congress passed the 2002 Farm Bill. The law was again amended with the 2008 Farm Bill to encompass more foods.
The nearly complete rules go into effect on October 1, 2008. Consumers may not notice much difference immediately, retailers have six months to make sure they fully understand the regulations and are able to comply.
Next, the government will come to come out with a final set of rules, which incorporates separate seafood and shellfish regulations, but there is no set date at this time. #