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CU lauds mandatory country of origin labeling

September 12, 2008

Concerns Raised About Exemptions for Meat & Poultry Sold in Butcher Shops and
Fish Markets, Processed and Mixed Products

“COOL Tool” Online: CU Guide Helps Consumers Understand COOL

Yonkers, NY—Consumers Union today hailed the long-awaited implementation of mandatory federal country of origin labeling (COOL) on all meats, fish, poultry and produce sold in retail stores in the United States beginning September 30, 2008. Mandatory COOL for meats, fish, produce and peanuts became law in the United States in 2002. But under pressure from industry, Congress delayed implementation of all but the seafood labeling until October 2008. A Consumer Reports poll released last year found that 92 percent of Americans agree that imported foods should be labeled by their country of origin.
“This is a long-awaited change and we think it will be a great benefit for consumers,” said Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives for Consumers Union, nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports. “If a food safety problem is identified in a particular imported product, as happened with jalapeño and serrano peppers from Mexico earlier this year, then consumers will be able to avoid that product. On the other hand, some people like to buy certain imported products, like New Zealand lamb or Holland tomatoes. Still others just want to buy local produce. Either way, the new labels will give consumers important new information.”
CU developed an online guide for consumers to understand the new rules, available at: http://www.consumersunion.org/pdf/CU-Cool-Tool.pdf. COOL is already in effect for seafood and for foods that are packaged or canned in other countries. Some in the industry have indicated that the new rules will impose high costs. “The country labels on seafood seem to have had little impact on price and packaged foods have included these labels for decades. We would be surprised if the new labels on meat and fresh produce caused noticeable changes in price in the supermarket,” said Halloran. “Consumers have clearly indicated that they want to have the information to protect themselves at the grocery store, and COOL will help them do that.”
Consumers Union is concerned, however, about exemptions from the new labeling requirements. Meat and poultry sold in butcher shops and fish sold in fish markets—some 11 percent of all meat and fish—are exempt because the law is worded to cover only large establishments that sell a certain minimum amount of fresh produce.
CU also objects to exemptions for processed foods. “This means that no imported ham or roasted peanuts will indicate their country of origin unless they were canned or packaged in another country,” says Halloran.
Mixtures, such as mixed frozen vegetables or trail mix are also exempt. “These exemptions are unnecessary and defeat the purpose of the law. Wherever there was any doubt, USDA seems to have come down on the side of industry and created the largest possible exemptions. We hope some of these problems can be addressed in the future,” said Halloran.
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Jean Halloran, 914.378.2457
Naomi Starkman, 917.539.3924