Wednesday, October 1, 2008

New Country-of-Origin Markings for Beef, Pork, Chicken, Lamb, Fruits, Vegetables, and Nuts

The United States began requiring country-of-origin labeling (“COOL”) for imported beef, pork, chicken, and lamb.  Country-of-origin labels are also required for perishable items, such as fruits, vegetables, and a variety of nuts.  The new labeling requirements entered into effect on September 30, 2008. 

Exempt from the new disclosure requirements are “processed” foods, such as mixed frozen vegetables.  Some food safety advocates reportedly are complaining that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has “bent over backward to make as few things be covered as possible.”  Stephen J. Hedges, Soon, Meet Your Meat’s Maker,: County-of-Origin Labels to Be Required, Chicago Tribune, Sept. 13, 2008, sec. 1, at 1, 5 (quoting Michael Hansen, a senior staff scientist with Consumers Union).  They may have a point:  under the Department of Agriculture rules as reported in the Chicago Tribune, a bag of imported peas or a bag of imported carrots must disclose the country of origin, but not if the peas and carrots are mixed together.  The carrots and peas mixed together are considered to be “processed” and as such do not require country-of-origin labeling.

Country-of-origin labels have been long required for other products.  Markings must be conspicuous and legible.  How a product must be marked depends on the product.  A hangtag or sticker will often suffice, but many products require permanent markings.  (Pick up something on your desk to see where it came from.) The cost of compliance can be steep.  The estimated cost to the food industry (and consumers) in this first year was $2.5 billion dollars.  There are civil and criminal penalties under U.S. law for non-compliance.  But the debate on whether to incur that cost is over – the regulations are now in effect and industries have no choice but to comply.

Why are there such labels?  The labels allow customers to know the origin of the goods they are purchasing.  Consumers may want to avoid buying products from certain countries because of a poor human rights record, lack of care for the environment, or food safety issues (such as killer tomatoes, tainted spinach, a sudden outbreak of Mad Cow disease).  And on the other side of the coin, some consumers may want to know the country so that they can purchase products from that country (such as fair trade coffee from Kenya or Brazil, products “Made in the U.S.A.” to support domestic industries in the United States, or chocolate from Belgium or Switzerland because they make the best chocolate).

Our readers in the United States can start checking in supermarkets for new country-of-origin labels. Let us know what you find!


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