The Politics of COOL
Country-of-origin labeling, or COOL, has been a bone of contention within the seafood and retail industries since its introduction in the 2002 Farm Bill. It's one of the more peculiar laws regarding the U.S. food supply, as I discovered while researching our April Top Story, "The Call for COOL." For instance, only retailers (and only those of a certain size) are subject to the regulations - but not restaurants, where Americans consume the majority of their seafood. And the official country of origin of any given product isn't necessarily where the fish was harvested, but where it was last processed. However, the politics surrounding this controversial program are of particular interest.
COOL is a hot-button issue in Southern states, where thereâ??s a growing call to extend the law to foodservice. It's easy to understand why U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and others want seafood origins on menus. Domestic catfish farmers, including many in Mississippi, are scraping by while imports of Asian pangasius and other competitors are flourishing. What's more, species substitution (much of it involving pangasius) has plagued the region. For an unbridled take on how imports impact the domestic seafood industry, read the latest entry to our reader feedback.
It's a public officer's duty to represent his or her constituents and home-state industries, even though we may not like the protectionist measures they take and the trade barriers that often result. Last year, when I wrote about the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, I was granted five minutes on the phone with Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). It was Stevens who pushed for seafood to be subject to COOL laws three-plus years before other covered commodities (which, by the way, is scheduled for Sept. 30) to safeguard the state's wild seafood industry.
When I asked Stevens what his response would be to critics who say federal fishery management laws have always favored Alaska's seafood industry, he told me, rather tersely, "I'd say thanks for telling me Iâ??ve done my job."
But don't expect the restaurant industry to go gently into that COOL night. Ken Conrad, the chairman of Libby Hill Seafood Restaurants in Greensboro, N.C., and a representative to the National Restaurant Association, told me that the foodservice industry, if faced with mandatory COOL compliance, would fire its own political "bullets."
For now, it's restaurants that are in the COOL crosshairs.
In Wednesday's Currents, we'll release the 2006 and 2007 COOL audit statistics from the U.S. Department of Agricultureâ??s Agricultural Marketing Service.