Country-of-origin labeling could be a plus for both producer, consumer

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. – At a time of rising concern over food security, public demand is growing for information about where food originates.

“There’s nothing new about food imports, but there is a lot of interest by a lot of people about where the food they consume comes from,” said John VanSickle, a University of Florida agricultural economist.

Congress last year passed a law requiring that by September 2004 all fruits and vegetables, beef, lamb, pork and fish sold in the United States include a label showing where the food originated.

Joint effort. VanSickle is the lead author of a new study by faculty at five universities that shows country-of-origin labeling – often referred to as COOL – would have significant benefits for consumers.

Other faculty working on the study include Neil Harl, a law professor and economist at Iowa State University; Roger McEowen, an agricultural law professor at Kansas State University; John Conner, an agricultural economist at Purdue University; and Robert Taylor, an agricultural economist at Auburn University.

Minimal cost. The actual cost of record keeping for the new labeling would be less than one-tenth of a cent per pound, VanSickle said.

“Consumers will be more confident about food products when they know where they come from,” he said. “Labeling allows them to identify U.S. products and support those producers in the marketplace.”

He said labeling reduces the risk and cost of food-safety problems by providing information that would make food recall efforts easier to track and identify.

Program details unclear. “There has been considerable debate and several competing claims about the cost of this program,” he said.

“The fact of the matter is that USDA has not yet designed the regulations to implement mandatory labeling, and our study indicates it can be done in a way that will benefit the consumer – 90 to 95 percent cheaper than what opponents say it would cost.”

VanSickle said the cheapest way to implement country-of-origin labeling would be to presume that all covered commodities are from the United States unless otherwise noted on the label.

Many producers exempt. “Our study shows that, according to the labeling law, producers themselves would not be subject to USDA jurisdiction. Only those who supply covered products directly to retailers would be covered,” he said.

He said this eliminates the regulatory burden for farmers and ranchers who sell live animals or raw crops to processors or wholesalers.

Meets WTO rules. Adding country-of-origin information to imported products would comply with World Trade Organization rules and other trade laws, VanSickle said.

Since existing customs requirements and federal health regulations already require identification of most imported animals, the information should be made available to consumers.

The complete study is available at www.iatpc.fred.ifas.ufl.edu.

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