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Country of origin labels (COOL) on food products are commonplace around the world. On September 30, meat, poultry, produce and peanuts sold in the U.S. will require labeling stating the product's origin. (Seafood origin labeling became mandatory in 2002.) But, rather than celebrating this as a coup for consumers, the new COOL rules are being greeted as half-measures by some and as downright confusing by others.
The Consumers Union gives general praise to COOL.
This is a long-awaited change and we think it will be a great benefit for consumers," said Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives for Consumers Union, nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports. "If a food safety problem is identified in a particular imported product, as happened with jalapeÃ±o and serrano peppers from Mexico earlier this year, then consumers will be able to avoid that product. On the other hand, some people like to buy certain imported products, like New Zealand lamb or Holland tomatoes. Still others just want to buy local produce. Either way, the new labels will give consumers important new information.
But, Consumers Union goes on to list some things they say are "not cool" about COOL. Butcher shops and fish markets that don't meet a minimum amount in annual sales are exempt. But a more grievous exemption is allowed for processed food.
"This means that no ham or bacon or roasted peanuts will indicate their country of origin," says Halloran. Mixtures, such as mixed frozen vegetables or trail mix are also exempt. "These exemptions are unnecessary and defeat the purpose of the law. Wherever there was any doubt, USDA seems to have come down on the side of industry and created the largest possible exemptions. We hope some of these problems can be addressed in the future," said Halloran.
But, it doesn't stop there. The National Farmers Union (NFU) has stepped in to add their concern about what NFU president Tom Buis calls, "a loophole big enough to drive a truck through." It goes like this. The regulations include four labeling categories to reflect that animals are often born, raised and slaughtered in different countries. Instead of changing the label every time a new batch of animals comes through, processors are planning to use a multiple country of origin label such as "Product of U.S., Mexico and Canada." The NFU says this is a disservice to U.S. farmers and consumers who want to support local farms.
Country of origin labels are a good way to help consumers find out where their food is coming from. It's unfortunate that this legislation includes exemptions that cater to industry and may cause consumer confusion. At least it's a start.
:: Consumers Union
:: National Farmers Union
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