Country of Origin (COOL) Labeling
What Do Country of Origin (COOL) Labeling Regulations Cover?
Seafood has been covered since 2005. Since 2009, beef, poultry, lamb, goat, some nuts (peanuts, pecans and macadamias), fresh and some frozen fruits and vegetables, and ginseng have to be labeled with their country of origin. This requirement applies to retailers (grocery stores). The labeling is not required at restaurants or specialty markets (like fish markets, butcher shops or roadside stands). And the way the USDA defined the rules for labeling do leave some loopholes that mean consumers are not getting all the information they should be.
What Are the Loopholes?
The rules for COOL exempt “processed” versions of the foods that are covered by the law. And unfortunately, USDA defined the word “processed” in the broadest way they could, so that the maximum amount of food is exempted from labeling. The rules now exempt things that are:
- cooked, roasted, smoked or cured
- combined with one other ingredient
Most nuts sold in grocery stores are roasted, so they won’t be labeled. Raw seafood requires a label, but if it is cooked or smoked, no label. The same goes for meat, so a lot of product in the pork section of the meat case is exempt because it is smoked or cured. The rule that adding one ingredient exempts products from labeling means that lots of frozen vegetables (think peas and carrots) and salad mixes don’t have to be labeled.
How Can a Piece of Meat Come From Multiple Countries?
You are likely to see something in the meat case labeled as “product of U.S., Mexico and Canada” or some other combination that lists more than one place. This happens when, for instance, the animal was born in one country, but entered another country to be raised or slaughtered. Another is that a package of ground meat might contain parts of multiple animals— which might be from different countries.
How to handle these “multi-country” labels has been controversial, and not surprisingly, the USDA is letting the meat packers take advantage of the situation. Some companies are using these multi-country (or “North American”) labels on product that is actually from animals that were born, raised and slaughtered in the United States. Why would they pass up the chance to sell something as a “product of the U.S.”? We’re not sure, but lots of farming and ranching groups think it is to keep from having to pay them more for animals that are eligible for a U.S. label.
COOL Labels Under Attack
Canada and Mexico have challenged the U.S. law requiring mandatory country of origin labeling for food at the World Trade Organization. Learn more.