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More Foods to Receive Country-of-Origin Labeling, But Law Has Loopholes

Sep 30, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP According to a recent Associated Press (AP) report, effective this week, more foods will be labeled with the country of origin.  Before now, consumers typically did not know where their food originated.  The new so-called COOL law will begin to change some of that.  But, the law is not without its flaws and it does contain a number of significant exceptions and omissions.

The law will better enable shoppers to buy local or choose from which country their food comes from.  Also, when a food poisoning outbreak occurs, investigators will have an easier time of determining the food’s source.  “We do see it as an important step on the road to a more comprehensive system for tracing food items" during outbreaks, says Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. 

"It will be a very good thing because we'll have a lot more information," adds Jean Halloran of Consumers Union. But, "you can still be fooled by the COOL label."

Halloran is referring to a number of the law’s exceptions.  For instance, the AP points out that while fresh strawberries will be labeled, chocolate-covered strawberries will not.  Likewise with peanuts.  Raw peanuts get a label; however, roasted peanuts do not require labeling.  The same goes for pre-washed salad mixes; some are labeled and some are not.

The law requires that retailers notify customers of the country of origin—and this includes the United States—of raw beef, veal, lamb, pork, chicken, goat, wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish, fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, peanuts, pecans, macadamia nuts, and whole ginseng.  The country of origin can be placed anywhere it fits, such as the rubber band around asparagus; the plastic wrap on ground beef; the little sticker that says "Gala" on an apple, says the AP.  So, for foods not normally sold in any packaging, such as a bin of fresh green beans or mushrooms, then the seller is required to post a sign.  Of course, foods that already contain labels such as “Jersey Grown,” need not contain additional labeling as shoppers can infer those foods originated in the United States.

Also, the law does not require processed foods be labeled and this includes cooked foods such as breaded chicken tenders, ham and bacon, canned peas, and trail mix.  So, if your peas are fresh, expect a label, but if your peas are canned—which means they were cooked—there will be no label.  If foods are mixed, such as the example provided by the AP—cantaloupe slices from Guatemala with Florida watermelon chunks—a label is not required.  The same applies for bagged salads and other mixed food products.

The COOL law was first passed in 2002; however, lobbying by grocery stores and large meatpackers led Congress to delay the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from implementing the law.  Eventually, seafood phased in in 2005, signifying the first step in the process.

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