USDA considers stricter COOL guidelines

By

Steven Hedlund

Published on
February 18, 2009

The Obama administration is scrapping country-of-origin labeling (COOL) rules proposed by the Bush administration, though the effect on seafood is unclear. The law requires supermarkets to label seafood as to its country of origin and whether it's wild or farmed.

According to Jean Halloran, director of food policy issues for Consumers Union, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will ask the beef industry to voluntarily follow stricter COOL guidelines than those recommended by the Bush administration. If the industry declines to comply, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will create new rules.

Halloran was one of several individuals who participated in a conference call with Vilsack on Tuesday. Vilsack said he would like to see companies more clearly label where an animal was born, raised and slaughtered, said Halloran. He also said he would like to see COOL applied to more types of foods, she added. For example, "processed" seafood items, such as smoked seafood, are exempt from COOL.

 

Halloran said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, asked Vilsack during the call how the new rules would apply to seafood, but he was unable to answer her question.

Consumers Union and Food & Water Watch are among the groups that support stricter COOL guidelines and a narrower definition of "processed" foods. Consumers Union is also advocating for a tighter definition of "retailer." Currently, retailers who sell predominately seafood are exempt from COOL, but supermarkets, supercenters and club stores are not.

 

COOL was part of the 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills. It went into effect for seafood on 4 April 2005. But COOL for beef, lamb, pork, chicken and other animal products was delayed until 30 September 2008.

COOL opponents call the law burdensome and expensive. In March 2007, the Food Marketing Institute reported that implementing COOL cost up to 10 times more than the USDA originally estimated.

 

"I don't see this latest round of COOL discussions having much of any effect on seafood," said Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute. "Fresh meats [and] perishable fruits and vegetables are the real target, as it would be an expansion of COOL from seafood to those products. The seafood community is well versed in COOL and has been compliant for years.

 

"We've found, at least anecdotally, that consumers continue to buy primarily with cost, quality and taste preference in mind as opposed to country of origin," Gibbons added.

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