The New Country of Origin Labeling Law – COOL – And How it Will Be Applied
It doesn’t matter where you live in California, whether it is in farming or agricultural areas such as the Coachella Valley, or cities such as San Diego, CA, Carlsbad, Oceanside, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, Orange County, Anaheim, Irvine, Santa Ana, Costa Mesa, Yorba Linda, Fullerton, Ontario, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Bernardino, Temecula, Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Victorville, Santa Barbara, Ventura, La Jolla, Del Mar, San Marcos, Encinitas, Solana Beach, Pacific Beach, El Cajon, Chula Vista, or Escondido, you will be pleased to see a change at the grocery store when you buy food and drink, or agricultural products.
The change has to do with the law. No, California agricultural lawyers won’t be in the produce aisle. And California food and drink or regulatory attorneys won’t be lurking near the frozen foods. California personal injury attorneys won’t be looking for slip and fall accident victims. But the change will please customers nonetheless.
Until now, most consumers had no idea from which country the food they were eating came from. With the new COOL (Country of Origin Labeling) law taking effect after September 30, 2008, all that will change, with a few exceptions and a few quirks.
After years of lobbying for delays by grocery lobbying groups who argued the law would be too costly to implement, and who lobbied for delays, COOL has at last taken effect.
Now when you buy that apple, pick up a package of most meats, or bag a head of lettuce, you will be able to glean from either a label, sticker or notice of some kind what country it came from. Unfortunately, as of yet, the law does not extend to dairy products and with the milk scare from China, one can hope that calls for it to be expanded to include these products will be heeded. The law also does not apply to organ meats such as heart, liver or kidney but how many households see those meats on the dinner table?
The law also provides exceptions for processed foods such as bacon or everyone’s favorite, Spam, foods that are mixed together such as peas and carrots, but it’s likely to help consumers feel much safer in being able to avoid food from certain countries, especially during food poisoning outbreaks, and feel better able to buy American if they want to.
The law was established in the 2002 Farm Bill, but was successfully delayed by lobbying groups until now. Concern about unsafe imports from China and elsewhere finally overcame food industry efforts to delay it. It was amended in the 2008 Farm Bill to include more foods. Retailers have six months to get to know the regulations and come into compliance (so there’s a grace period here). Then the government is supposed to announce a final set of regulations incorporating seafood and shell fish regulations already in effect.
The law makes one think that lobbying efforts may be the reason for some of the strange distinctions in COOL. For instance macadamia nuts are included, but not walnuts. Did the walnuts have a better lobbyist than the macadamia nut lobbyist, or was the macadamia state senator absent when the Farm Bill was passed?
There are also exceptions in COOL for butchers, fish markets, restaurants, restaurants in hotels, school cafeterias, and small retailers. Additionally if spices, sauce or breading has been added, no labeling is required. Though not exactly food, the law also does not apply to pharmaceuticals, though there are calls to extend the law to them. Produce mixed in displays may simply be labeled as being “from two or more countries of origin.”
Consumers are likely going to be surprised when they see how much of their food is imported. “I’ve been eating what?” and “This comes from where?” will likely be heard by check out clerks as consumers stand in line and look over the new labels.
COOL has long been a goal of U.S. farmers and ranchers who believe that identifying foreign food imports may encourage shoppers and manufacturers to buy more U.S. foods. Meat packers, on the other side of the barbed wire, opposed COOL citing the costs it will involve in its implementation.
But as this country’s economic crisis grows, shoppers may be more and more inclined to buy American not just for safety but to help other Americans. Who nicer to help than American farmers?
Lawmakers and consumer groups are angry that the USDA seems to be attempting to evade congressional intent by allowing steaks and other meat cuts to be labeled with multiple country of origin labels. Congress only intended that exception for ground beef or for animals raised in more than one country. It has been said that there is a chasm of difference between the statutory language that was passed by Congress and the rule allowing multiple of country origin labels drafted by the USDA.
It has been suggested by some that it was meat packers who didn’t want the obligation to sort out cattle from Canada and Mexico, who are the reason why at least to start, beef may be labeled with just a North American country of origin label, as opposed to a U.S. country of origin label. Sadly, with this country’s lack of geographical knowledge (just watch Jay Leno when he asks people on the street where Canada is), many people will assume that “North American” means that the beef couldn’t possibly have come from outside the U.S., much less Mexico.
Consumer advocacy groups hope that the USDA will make rule changes as it receives more feedback. Thirty-one Senators, including Barack Obama have already written the Agriculture Secretary calling for more restrictive meat labeling rules. U.S. Cattlemen have also asked the USDA to address the loophole for beef and see that the statute is faithfully implemented.
There are other discrepancies with how the law will be applied. Fish caught off the coast of Alaska by a Chinese or Japanese owned ship may be labeled as a product of China or Japan. Beef raised in another country that spends 30 days in a feed lot in the U.S. can be labeled as coming from the U.S.
Retailers are given discretion how they label the food. Meat counters, for instance, may simply list all the countries where the meat is produced, or they can label each cut. Hamburger will still likely give the consumer pause as meat that is ground up may come from numerous countries.
Since all chicken and goat consumed in the U.S. comes from the U.S., the chicken and goat industries asked to be included in the law.
Once compliance goes into effect, businesses may be fined $1,000 per violation. The law is expected to cost at least $2 billion to implement.