Country of Origin Label Law Goes into Effect

The interim U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Country of Origin Law (COOL) that was set in motion this autumn is now fully in effect, the Associated Press (AP) is reporting. The new law enables shoppers to determine from where their foods originated and will include labeling on most fresh meats, which, in some cases, will detail from where the animal was born, raised, and slaughtered, said the AP.

Labels will also be included on some fruits and vegetables, the AP noted, all better enabling shoppers to figure out if their food came from the U.S. or was imported. But, many of the recent <"">food poisoning outbreaks and recalls—California spinach, salmonella-tainted Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) peanuts, E. coli-tainted Nebraskan beef, and listeria-tainted Pennsylvania chicken—have all originated domestically.

The LA Times explained that COOL, which began with the 2002 and 2008 farm bills, went into interim effect this past September. The law is now final and covers a variety of perishable foods including muscle meat cuts, ground beef, lamb, chicken, goat, and pork; wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish; fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables; macadamia nuts; pecans; ginseng; and peanuts, said the LA times.

But, the law does contain a number of significant exceptions. If an ingredient is part of a processed food (foods that undergo a physical or chemical change, said the AP)—the LA Times gave tomato sauce as a popular example—then the final product is excluded from the law. Change includes cooking, curing, smoking, or combining one food with another, said the AP.

For instance, roasted peanuts are excluded because roasting is an altering process; however, raw peanuts require labeling. Pork must be labeled, but ham and bacon, which are cured, are exempt. While chicken must be labeled, if it is breaded, thus altered, it does not require labeling. The same with vegetables. If peas are fresh or frozen, they require labeling; however, if they are canned—which involves cooking—or mixed in a packaged salad—which combines the peas with other foods—no labeling is called for. This combining exemption includes all bagged salads, mixed vegetables, and even chocolate-covered fruit, to name a few. Also excluded are “restaurants, lunchrooms, cafeterias, food stands, bars, lounges and other food service sites,” said the AP.

USDA Secretary, Tom Vilsack, said that he “strongly” supports “country of origin labeling—it’s a critical step toward providing consumers with additional information about the origin of their food,” quoted the LA Times, which explained that penalties up to $1,000 per violation for retailers and suppliers found to be in noncompliance with COOL can be assessed.

But, some criticize the regulation, such as Opposing Views, which argued that the law makes foods more costly and the information is essentially useless, saying that just because a perishable food originated offshore that does not provide meaningful information about that food’s quality and safety. Opposing Views claims the enactment—implemented at a first-year cost of $89 million, $62 million annually—is simply a form of “regulatory harassment designed to play to anti-foreign prejudices.”

Regardless, food safety advocates have been fighting for the policy for some time now, as have U.S. ranchers, mostly due to their competition with Canadian ranchers, said the AP.

But, advocates say that COOL will better enable shoppers to buy local or choose from which country their food comes from. Also—and of very significant importance in the wake of, and in the midst of, numerous food borne illness outbreaks—when an outbreak occurs, investigators will have an easier time determining the food’s source, which is hoped to ultimately speed up the resolution of such outbreaks.

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