COOL Rule Takes Effect, But What Effect Will It Have?

US - After years of pressure from U.S. agricultural groups, new U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations took effect yesterday that will require nearly all fresh meat and produce to be labeled according to its country of origin.
calendar icon 1 October 2008
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Many consumers feel very strongly about it. They want to know where meat and poultry comes from to assure themselves that they are as safe as they can be.

But USDA officials say the new labels are no guarantee of food quality. The change is being implemented by the marketing arm of the USDA, not its Food Safety and Inspection Service.

"It's not a food safety provision; it's purely a marketing provision," said Lloyd Day, USDA Agricultural Marketing Service administrator.

"At the end of the day, it's a decision a consumer ought to have the information to make."
John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union

Both imported and domestic food will continue to be subject to existing food safety standards, he said.

The USDA predicts little economic benefit from the new labels and says their biggest impact will be additional cost. Analysts have concluded that the labels will cost 1.2 million farmers and food businesses a combined $2.5 billion to implement in the first year. The estimate includes new paperwork requirements and possible changes to plant operations, line processing, product handling and storage.

USDA analysts say the higher costs will bump food prices up, although by less than 1 cent per pound for affected products.

Nonetheless, many of the consumers commenting to the USDA on the new labels have said they support them because they want to know more about the sources of their food.

John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union and a longtime supporter of country of origin labeling, said the new labels will give consumers more information to make purchasing decisions.

Some may choose American meat and produce because they think it's safer than that produced in other countries. Others may prefer its taste, Hansen said.

"At the end of the day, it's a decision a consumer ought to have the information to make."

However, the new labels probably won't be noticeable in the grocery aisle any time soon.

USDA officials have said that they will rely on education and outreach to ease retailers into the new requirements during the next six months.

Many grocery store items already list their country of origin because of increased demand for local and seasonal products. Hence, the Colorado peaches, the New Zealand lamb, and the tomatoes and melons from local growers. Plus, seafood already is required to carry country of origin labels, under USDA rules that took effect three years ago.

The new labeling requirements apply only to stores licensed to sell produce, and a license is not required unless a store handles at least $230,000 in produce a year. That leaves out small grocery stores, meat markets and butcher shops. Restaurants and cafeterias also are exempt.

"We estimate that half the grocery stores in the state will be exempt because they're small enough," said Kathy Siefken, executive director of the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association. "With restaurants also exempt, at the end of the day we estimate that maybe 15 percent of all the meat sold in Nebraska will be exempted."

Probably the most extensive changes will affect meat. About 10 percent of hogs and cattle slaughtered each year in U.S. packinghouses -- about 10 million hogs and 2.5 million cattle -- were born in Mexico or Canada.

Although the feeders selling cattle to the meatpackers will provide documentation about where their animals were born, some meatpackers say it will be difficult and expensive to maintain separate identification of foreign-born and native-born animals as they move through the packinghouse.

Some packers may opt to label their meat as products of the U.S., Canada and Mexico, rather than attempt to claim an exclusively U.S. origin for only part of their production. Farm groups have criticized that strategy, saying it would defeat the purpose of labeling.

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