SALEM, Ohio — Like it or not, mandatory country of origin labeling (COOL) is coming your way.
The USDA issued its interim final rule for the program July 29, which leaves time for public comment toward the program’s final operation, but allows COOL to go into effect, as planned, Sept. 30.
Covered. COOL, which has been on the books since at least 2001, got its final push toward reality from the 2008 farm bill issued just weeks ago.
Under the mandatory program, retail commodities must carry a label to indicate their country of origin.
The rule covers muscle cuts and ground beef and veal, lamb, chicken, goat, and pork; fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables; macadamia nuts; pecans; ginseng; and peanuts.
Wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish have been subjected to mandatory country-of-origin labeling since 2006.
The newest farm bill made some changes to the controversial order, including adding more products that must carry the label, and defining when a product should be labeled.
The bill says ground meat labels “shall list all countries of origin contained therein or that may be reasonably contained therein” to account for commingling of meats.
USDA has also revised the definition of a processed food item so that items derived from a covered commodity that has undergone a physical or chemical change, like cooking or smoking, or that has been combined with other covered commodities, are excluded from COOL labeling.
Examples of items excluded from country of origin labeling include a flavored pork loin, breaded chicken tenders, mixed vegetables, or a salad mix that contains two or more vegetables.
Food service establishments, such as restaurants, lunchrooms, cafeterias, food stands, bars, lounges, and similar enterprises are exempt from the mandatory country of origin labeling requirements.
The requirements apply only to covered commodities produced or packaged after Sept. 30, 2008.
The law also was changed to ease recordkeeping for verifying an animal’s country of origin by allowing the use of existing on-farm records, such as normal business records or animal health papers, or import or customs documents.
Fines and penalties for violating the labeling rule were also decreased from $10,000 to $1,000.
Initially opposed to the mandatory labeling, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association has softened its stance and is “pleased” to have the interim final rule in place.
“NCBA worked to develop a compromise version of COOL during debate on the 2008 farm bill that promotes U.S. beef products without overburdening producers,” said Andy Groseta, NCBA president.
Groseta said the rule “incorporates provisions that make mandatory labeling more feasible for producers.”
“USDA did a rather straightforward job in writing these rules,” said R-CALF USA COOL committee chair Mike Schultz, noting the agency accepted many groups’ recommendations to simplify implementation of the program.
“For the most part, USDA properly adopted the legislative language that minimizes requirements on producers and other suppliers by allowing them to use their own affidavits to prove an animal’s origin,” he said.
The rule also allows meatpackers to use foreign import markings to verify animals of foreign origin, such as ear tags and brands on cattle from Mexico and Canada, he said.
But Schultz found faults in the program, too, in that USDA requires every person in the supply chain to maintain COOL records for one year. He called it “one step forward and one step back” in the supply chain.
“For instance, a cow-calf producer would need to maintain records of who they sold their cattle to, and that person would need to keep records about who he or she purchased the cattle from and then who he or she sold them to,” Schultz explained.
The interim final rule was published in the Aug. 1 Federal Register and calls for a 60-day public comment period.
USDA acknowledged the program as merely a way for consumers to know where their food comes from to aid in purchasing decisions. COOL does not provide a basis for addressing food safety, according to USDA.