This past Tuesday (October 1) we finally saw something good for consumers come out of the federal government: Country Of Origin Labeling (COOL) for food. Grocery stores have six months to comply and then most meat and produce and some nut producers must specify the origin of their products (exceptions include roasted nuts, mixed vegetables, and a few other items).
This requirement (which applies to retailers not producers, although it certaily affects producers) is a provision of the Farm Bill – not the most recent Farm Bill but the 2002 Farm Bill. The requirement for fish and shellfish was implemented in 2005 because of concerns about foreign seafood, but the other labels were delayed first in 2004, then in 2005. The retail food industry was, inevitably, totally opposed to the idea claiming it would raise prices, drive small retailers out of business (Ever noticed that it’s big business that hires lobbyists to supposedly defend small business?), and would reduce consumer choice – as though I’m going to give up eating leg of lamb because it comes from New Zealand or might not be just as happy with ground lamb from Oregon in Kofta.
Such end-of-the-world objections about added costs, whether to parsnips or ball bearings, are almost always nonsense if the added costs are applied equitably.
There are inevitably exceptions, which is why writing laws, rules, and regulations is hard. Requiring Donna, who grows the best tomatoes in East Tennessee and sells them at farmers’ markets, to individually label her tomatoes as grown in Tennessee would be silly. However, apparently this regulation doesn’t require that (it only applies to those selling more than $230,000 of produce a year).
Although COOL isn’t directly concerned with safety issues, it’s certainly a step in that direction. If you have concerns about grapes grown in Chile or peppers from Mexico you will have the opportunity to avoid these products. And in the case of the salmonella-ridden Mexican peppers the labels would probably have sped up discovery of source of contamination.
The law does contain some rather large loopholes. For instance, if the food is processed in some way it needn’t be labeled. So raw chicken from Guatemala has to be labeled but if that same chicken is made into chicken nuggets. Raw peanuts are covered but salted peanuts aren’t. Additionally, dairy products aren’t covered.
Also, if foods are mixed together they needn’t be labeled so although Mexican cantaloupe has to be labeled, if it’s mixed in a fruit salad with American oranges or Nicaraguan pineapple then no label is required. And oddly enough, meat and seafood sold in dedicated butcher shops or fish markets isn’t covered by the law.
Hopefully COOL will have some effect on food safety (although most cases of contaminated food during the past decade has been produced in this country). It also gives consumers the option of making more informed buying decisions. I may not care if a cantaloupe comes from the U.S. or Mexico – but then again, I just might.