Wednesday, October 1, 2008

COOL (Country of Origin Labeling) for You and Me

Country of Origin Labeling (or COOL, for you hip kitties) went into effect yesterday, and it could determine how you buy groceries for the foreseeable future. But … what the heck is it? Let’s take a look.

WHAT THE HECK IS IT?
From now on, certain store-bought food items will carry tags noting where they came from.

WHEN DOES IT HAPPEN?
It’s been in effect for seafood for a number of years, but it was mandated for many other foods starting yesterday. The USDA is giving supermarkets six months (until April 2009) to get with the program, and after that, they’ll be fined $1000 for violations. Some are already on board, though. According to the New York Times, “Wal-Mart planned to have many of the labels in place by Tuesday … and [Kroger] expected to introduce the labels in the coming weeks.”

WHAT FOODS WILL IT AFFECT?
Lots of fresh produce will be labeled, as well as several cuts of meat. WebMD lists “beef, veal, lamb, chicken, pork, goat, wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, peanuts, pecans, ginseng, and macadamia nuts.”

WHAT FOODS WON’T IT AFFECT?
Here’s where it starts to get tricky. The labels WON’T be placed on:
  • Processed food
  • Roasted nuts
  • Turkey
  • Bacon
  • Ham
  • Juice
  • Meatballs
  • Sausage
  • Tomato sauce
  • Mixed foods (fruit cups, trail mix, salad bags, vegetable medleys, etc.)
  • Pre-cooked foods
  • Foods where “it’s an ingredient in a bigger dish” (i.e. chicken fajitas)
  • Meat from butcher shops
  • Seafood from fish markets
  • Food sold through food-service establishments, including restaurants, schools, hospitals and other institutions.”

Why are so many processed foods eliminated? Well, in one expert’s view, “"Have we figured out how to put a COOL label on a Hershey bar? It's about 10 feet long.”

WHICH FOODS ARE IFFY?
Okay, now it gets complicated. Sometimes, our food comes from more than one place – especially meat, since they’re, “often born, raised and slaughtered in different countries.” So, they’re going with “a multiple country of origin label such as "Product of U.S., Mexico and Canada.” (Nield) This article has more.

WHAT WILL IT LOOK LIKE?
For the most part, you’ll see COOL in one of three ways:

  1. Stickers, tags, and rubber bands affixed directly to the food. This already happens with a lot of produce, but it will be more widespread.
  2. Right in the name of the food. Jersey tomatoes, Washington apples, and Idaho potatoes are examples of this.
  3. On signs. As it’s difficult to label bulk spices, legumes, and such individually, stores will post it on placards above the food.

WILL IT COST MORE?
At first, yes, but it shouldn’t be crippling. Estimates vary on the exact price, though the Department of Agriculture pegs it somewhere between $1.9 and $2.5 billion for the first year, and much less after that. The costs will be passed down to consumers, though some feel the benefits will outweigh the demerits. For instance, according to the LA Times, “in the wake of a salmonella outbreak that's been traced to Mexican-grown hot peppers, some consider the price-information trade-off worthwhile.”

WHAT ARE THOSE BENEFITS?
The greatest advantage to COOL is knowing exactly where your food comes from. This:

  • allows U.S. shoppers to support domestic farmers and ranchers,
  • helps consumers choose healthier, tastier products that haven’t been shipped from thousands of miles away (more on that here), and
  • could prevent “health and safety problems” associated with some food imports (Mad Cow disease, etc.)

WHAT ARE THE DISADVANTAGES?
Besides the aforementioned cost, COOL could be viewed as “a thinly disguised trade barrier intended to increase importers’ costs and to foster the unfounded perception that imports may be inherently less safe.” Safety issues aren’t exclusive to food shipped in from overseas: American-made produce is just as open to salmonella and the like.

What’s more, COOL doesn’t cover a whole lot of food, statistically speaking. Produce and meat are great, but what about all those products found in the aisles (not the perimeter) of the supermarket? Some consumer groups aren’t crazy about its limited reach.

WHAT’S THE FINAL VERDICT?
Honestly, this seems like a great idea to me. I think we’ll still purchase imported food out of pure necessity, but I’m very comfortable helping domestic producers – especially in economic times like these.

Readers? Your thoughts?

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SOURCES

(Photos courtesy of Practical Hydroponics, and The Fair Tracing Project.)

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4 comments:

Emily said...

Is it possible that this may encourage people to shop the outer isles? Maybe I'm reaching, but with this economy people may find a love of cooking from scratch, and may be even more encouraged to do so knowing where their products are coming from.

Daniel Koontz said...

Kris, this was an excellent article.

I'll throw in my thoughts. I'm always a supporter of any (non-onerous) regulations that put more information in the hands of the consumer.

But one disappointment for me is they exempted mixed raw foods (mixed salad bags, mixed fresh veggies, etc).

The key risk for the consumer is always going to be tainted food that the consumer will eat raw. I'd say if we're going to have repeats of our recent experiences with raw spinach (or strawberries, or jalapenos) from Mexico, it will be through that loophole that potentially tainted foods will reach our store shelves.

Otherwise I think it's solidly pro-consumer. Hey, few laws or regulations are perfect (as we've been seeing lately in our Congress!)

Dan
Casual Kitchen

Kris said...

Yeah, you guys - beyond the loopholes, I don't see a down side to this.

kevin said...

I like knowing where my food comes from, especially if it's being imported from somewhere like China. But I'm wondering how much this new measure will actually cost us. Will our groceries simply cost more? and by how much?