Country-of-origin labeling for foods was mandated in the 2002 U.S. Farm Bill and originally scheduled to be implemented in September 2004, but to date seafood is the only category with labeling in place. That's because lobbying groups successfully convinced Congress on several occasions to introduce bills or rid?ers that would repeal or delay executing the COOL law. Implementation for produce, meat and peanuts is now scheduled for Sept. 30, 2008, but legislation recently introduced in Congress would move that deadline to September 2007.
The legislation and date change are supported by the National Farmers Union, based in Washington, D.C. The NFU has coordinated a coalition of more than 200 organizations in support of the change, including many consumer and agricultural producer groups.
"This is a very popular piece of legislation with consumers," said Emily Eisenberg, NFU's spokeswoman. "It is already signed into law and should already be in place. We think consumers have a right to know where food comes from in order to make informed purchasing decisions when buying produce or meat."
The COOL law is opposed by the Food Marketing Institute, which represents about 26,000 U.S. retail food stores. FMI proposes voluntary, industry-sponsored labeling efforts instead. The Arlington, Va.-based organization maintains that the costs associated with the program are much higher than U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates for both retailers and manufacturers. The USDA estimates that implementing COOL would cost stores an average of $1,530 and manufacturers an average of $1,890. FMI, however, puts those costs at $9,000 to $16,000 per store and $200,000 to $250,000 per company.
"The industry's experience underscores the need to replace the law with a flexible, industry-led program that would be far less costly and provide information that would actually resonate with consumers," said Tim Hammonds, FMI president, in a published statement.
Though some manufacturers and retail?ers oppose the legislation and the proposed 2007 implementation, the ma?jority of con?sumer and agriculture groups support it, Eisenberg said. "Agricultural producers, family farms and ranchers believe that COOL is an important marketing tool to convey that their product is grown in the U.S., and our studies show consumers are willing to pay a couple cents more for U.S. items," she said.
In a 2004 survey commissioned by NFU, 82 percent of consumers supported mandatory country-of-origin labeling, and 85 percent said they would be more likely to buy food produced in the United States.
FMI officials say the industry is not opposed to the idea of COOL, only to the specific requirements of the mandatory labeling law. "Food retailers are not opposed to providing consumers with country-of-origin information. We are opposed to doing it with a government program that drives the cost of food unnecessarily high," Hammonds said.
But Eisenberg called FMI's cost analysis "a scare tactic" designed to worry consumers about price increases. "At the end of the day, the concern by multinationals is simply that a mandatory COOL will hurt their bottom line," she said.
Mitchell Clute is a freelance writer in Fort Collins, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 4/p. 9