Sunday, November 30, 2008

Oh, how COOL

Many of you may have noticed yet another “thing” on your food labels. While Country Of Origin Labeling (or COOL) was already printed on wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish, the 2008 Farm Bill has expanded the list to cover some muscle cuts of meats, ground meats, perishable agriculture commodities, ginseng and nuts. The implementation is the responsibility of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service and so far, as expected, their job has been far from cool.

The legislation has roots in the 2002 farm bill. On January 27, 2004, Public Law 108-199 delayed implementation of mandatory COOL for all covered commodities except wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish until September 30, 2006. On November 10, 2005, Public Law 109-97 delayed implementation of mandatory COOL for all covered commodities except wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish until September 30, 2008.

The bill has been framed as effort to provide consumers with information to make informed decision regarding where their food comes from, partially due to the recent attention to local food movements. What they tried to avoid was the ‘elephant in the room’ to all of us, food safety. The reason to avoid food safety? Maybe it is admitting that there is a problem with food safety in this country? Or maybe we don’t want to offend the countries we trade with? Whatever the reason, you are now going to know if you cow was a Canadian or if your tomatoes have been on further vacations then you.

Like most pieces of legislation there are a few exemptions to rule:

1. Non-PACA licensed stores. The Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act (PACA) is a federal law that regulates the produce industry (this could be butcher shops, convenience stores, etc.).

2. Food Service Establishments.

3. Certain processing methods:
- any covered commodity that has undergone processing that results in a change (cooking, curing, smoking, restructuring);
- any covered commodity that has been combined with another food product that is not water salt or sugar (does this mean a rise in peas and carrots? Oh dear!).

And it is these “exemptions” that seem to be causing a lot of ruckus. Say for instance: mixed salad versus bagged spinach? Mixed salad wouldn’t be covered, but the spinach would require labeling. How about a fruit cup that contains melons and strawberries? Nope, does not require a COOL label.

Dried fruit is not subject to COOL labeling requirements since the drying process changes the character of the fruit. Mushrooms, if fresh, are covered. Dried mushrooms are not covered. Packages of different colored sweet peppers (green, yellow, and/or red), combined in a package, will require country of origin notification because there is one U.S. Grade Standard for sweet peppers, regardless of the color.

And if you think the produce industry is confused on how to implement, the coolness continues for the meat industry responsible for muscle cuts beef, veal, pork, lamb and chicken and the ground counterparts.
a) Product of the U.S.—meat from animals born, raised, and slaughtered in the United States or from animals present in the United States on or prior to July 15, 2008.
b) Product of the U.S., Country X—meat from animals born in Country X and raised and slaughtered in the United States.
c)Meat from these animals were not exclusively born, raised, and slaughtered in the United States or imported for immediate slaughter -- meat from animals imported into the United States for immediate slaughter.
d) Product of Country X—foreign meat imported into the United States

Attempt at implementation has been revealing how meat is carried through the supply chain. From birth, to stockyard, to feedlot, to slaughter, animals can have quite a stamped passport and these complexities of the livestock industry may have some product labels listing multiple countries. That's especially true of ground beef, because some meat processors combine cuts from a number of countries to make ground meat and hamburger patties.

Meat packers and large agribusinesses initially opposed the rule because they want continued access to imported (often cheaper) meat, without facing a penalty in the marketplace from consumers who may think American meat is safer. They also argued that the label is unnecessary, too expensive and would be a record keeping nightmare (in this case, "they" was Tyson vice president testifying against COOL at USDA education session).

Proponents for the bill consider COOL a feather in their cap. They believe the greatest advantage is knowing exactly where your food comes from. They argue that COOL gives consumers the ability: to support more local economies, to choose fresher food, and could ultimately prevent food safety problems associated with imported foods.

Some caveats, because what would policy be without them?

1. There is a loophole: Food further processed in foreign countries, may still receive US determination i.e. baby carrots

2. Commingled commodities: goods from mixed countries require all countries to be identified i.e. a mixed bin of tomatoes

Whether you are for or against Country Of Origin Labeling, what this bill teaches us is that these laws are never cut and dry. Once the rule making and regulation begins, what sounded like a great idea can sometime turn into something that is not-so-COOL.

Note: cross-posted from Epicurean Ideal.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The 2008 U.S. Farm Bill sets aside 75 percent of direct farm ownership loans (increased from 70 percent), 40 percent of guaranteed loans (increased from 25 percent) and 50 percent of the direct operating loans (increased from 35 percent) for beginning farmers.