Natural Foods Merchandiser

COOL interim laws begin today

by David Accomazzo

Retailers will have to start labeling all unprocessed foods with the country of origin as the U.S. Department of Agriculture's new labeling regulations become interim law today. Final changes to the law might occur following a review of public input during the comment period that ended today.

The long-delayed labeling requirements first became law as part of the 2002 Farm Bill, but the USDA delayed implementation until it could figure out a way to ease the logistic burden on retailers.

The USDA plans to not enforce the law for at least six months to allow retailers time to develop their own labeling procedures.

The products requiring a country-of-origin label include ground and muscle cuts of beef, lamb, chicken, goat and pork; fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables; and macadamia nuts, pecans, ginseng and peanuts. The law applies only to retailers, not restaurants, and does not apply to processed foods, that is, anything which is cooked, cured or restructured in any way that alters its original form. Country-of-origin labeling has been required for fish and shellfish since 2004.

This means that, starting today, the law requires retailers to state the country of origin of the products mentioned above either on a label, stamp, mark, placard, or other sign on the package, display, holding case, or bin containing the product. Suppliers must make this information available to retailers either on the product itself, the shipping containers, or in paperwork accompanying the product.

The department's Agricultural Marketing Service put a $2.5 billion price tag on the program's implementation, estimating an annual cost of $376 for producers, $53,948 for intermediaries and $235,551 for retailers. One retailer thought that number might be a tad high."I would question that number," said Trudy Bialic, director of public affairs for PCC Natural Markets. "There was no significant cost to us."

The price, both monetary and otherwise, concerns other retailers, though, even though many agree the regulations are a good thing.

"It's probably a step in the right direction," said Shannon Hoffman, owner of GreenAcres Market in Kansas City, Mo. "We're going to have to include that on our signage ... It's going to require more work on our end to track everything, but ultimately, I think it's probably a good thing because one of the biggest issues out there is traceability."

Jeff Tripician, the executive vice president of Niman Ranch, a network of over 600 beef, lamb, and pork farmers, supports the new rules.

"I view this change as kind of part of a continuum in consumer education. As consumers become more educated, they will demand more and more information," Tripician said. "Whether it's where the food came from, how it was raised and by whom, these are logical questions in today's world of government recalls that consumers will ask about a product."

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