Last fall, the long-awaited rule requiring mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL) for food went into effect.
Food & Water Watch and other consumer and farming groups have been fighting for years to get this information into consumers’ hands. So can we relax now? Unfortunately, no. When the USDA wrote the rules for this labeling program, they included some massive loopholes that leave too much food exempt from the labeling requirement.
So we’ve got work to do to improve these rules. In the meantime, here’s more info about what COOL can do for you when you’re at the grocery store.
First of all, what is covered by the COOL regulations?
Seafood has been covered since 2005. Now beef, poultry, lamb, goat, some nuts (peanuts, pecans, and macadamias), fresh and some frozen fruits and vegetables, and ginseng have to be labeled with their country of origin. This requirement applies to retailers (grocery stores.) The labeling is not required at restaurants or specialty markets (like fish markets, butcher shops, or roadside stands).
So for foods that are covered, what are the loopholes?
The rules for COOL exempt “processed” versions of the foods that are covered by the law. And unfortunately, USDA defined the word “processed” in the broadest way they could, so that the maximum amount of food is exempted from labeling. The rules now exempt things that are:
• Cooked, roasted, smoked, or cured.
• Combined with one other ingredient.
So what does this mean at the store?
Well, while nuts are covered by the law, most nuts sold in grocery stores are roasted, so they won’t be labeled. Raw seafood requires a label, but if it is cooked or smoked, no label. The same goes for meat, so a lot of product in the pork section of the meat case is exempt because it is smoked or cured. And it’s not just meat. The rule that adding one ingredient exempts products from labeling means that lots of frozen vegetables (think peas and carrots) and salad mixes don’t have to be labeled.
How can meat be the product of more than one country?
You are likely to see something in the meat case labeled as “product of U.S., Mexico, and Canada” or some other combination that lists more than one place. How can a cow or a pig be from more than one country? Well, there are a couple scenarios. One is that the animal was born in one country, but entered another country to be raised or slaughtered. Another is that a package of ground meat might contain parts of multiple animals–and those animals might be from different countries.
How to handle these “multi-country” labels has been controversial, and not surprisingly, the USDA is letting the meat packers take advantage of the situation. Some companies are using these multi-country (or “North American”) labels on product that is actually from animals that were born, raised, and slaughtered in the United States. Why would they pass up the chance to sell something as a “product of the U.S.”? We’re not sure, but lots of farming and ranching groups think it is to keep from having to pay them more for animals that are eligible for a U.S. label.
What You Can Do
• Use the labeling that is showing up in stores. You should see labeling of beef (including ground beef), chicken, fish and fresh fruits and veggies soon.
• Tell your store they should label as much food with its country of origin as possible. The new rule from USDA is the minimum that’s required–not the limit. Tell the meat manager, the produce manager, and anybody else you can find that you want to see meat that’s a product of the United States, frozen vegetable and salad mixes with labels, and bacon and other pork products labeled too. These stores can force their suppliers to do this labeling, even if USDA won’t.
• Take action: While the new labeling requirement is a great victory, the USDA’s plan includes broad exemptions for “processed” foods, minimally processed foods such as roasted nuts, frozen vegetables, and smoked bacon–all of which will not have to be labeled with their country of origin. Tell the USDA to fix the rules for COOL!
• Find out how much labels really tell you.
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Food & Water Watch is an organization dedicated to the belief that the public should be able to count on our government to oversee and protect the quality and safety of food and water. For more information, go to www.foodandwaterwatch.org.