by Jessica Centers
To prepare those in the food industry for Sept. 30 — the date its mandatory country of origin labeling program will go into effect — the U.S. Department of Agriculture last week published an interim final rule detailing COOL's requirements.
The rule, published in the Federal Register on Aug. 1, applies to ground and muscle cuts of beef, lamb, chicken, goat and pork; perishable agricultural commodities; and macadamia nuts, pecans, ginseng and peanuts. It applies only to retailers and not restaurants. For at least the first six months of the rule's implementation, the agency will waive enforcement to engage in education and outreach.
At the urging of industry groups like the Food Marketing Institute, American Meat Institute and United Fresh Produce Association, the implementation of COOL, which was first passed in the 2002 Farm Bill, was delayed twice for all commodities except fish. The COOL program for fish and shellfish was implemented in October 2004.
In the 2008 Farm Bill, industry groups successfully pushed for changes in the original statute that they say will help ease the regulatory burden, like expanding the definition of processed foods, which are exempt; fining retailers for a mistake only when the violation is proved to be willful; and allowing produce to continue with current record-keeping and state and regional labeling, like "Washington apples" and "Idaho potatoes."
"I think in the long run, while some people were very concerned about the two delays Congress implemented, we supported those mainly because we needed to get the changes in place that would help make this work effectively for producers, retailers and consumers," said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association. "We've estimated minimal [implementation] cost for produce because there's already robust labeling being done."
For meat products, only those from an animal that was exclusively born, raised and slaughtered in the United States can be designated as having a United States country of origin. When labeling ground meats, the rule allows labels to declare the countries from which a meat product may have reasonably come from, based on the processor's inventory for the past 60 days.
R-CALF USA, which represents independent cattle producers who have been in favor of mandatory labeling, called the rule "simplified and workable" because it allows producers and suppliers to use their own affidavits to prove an animal's origin and allows meatpackers to use foreign import markings like ear tags or brands to verify animals of foreign origin, said the group's COOL Committee Chair Mike Schultz.
Though the American Meat Institute has opposed mandatory labeling, its goal is now to help members comply with the requirements, said AMI Senior Vice President of Regulatory Affairs and General Counsel Mark Dopp.
Toward that end, AMI is joining FMI and UFPA to hold a series of one-day regional workshops this month that will feature legal experts and USDA officials who helped write the rule. For information, go to www.fmi.org/events/.
USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service estimates first-year implementation costs at $376 for producers, $53,948 for intermediaries and $235,551 for retailers.