The food industry is implementing a voluntary country-of-origin labeling (COOL) program to help the food chain to realistically address the problems associated with the mandatory country-of-origin labeling program. Although a voluntary program has been in place since 1998, few members have participated.
The organizations representing beef, pork, seafood, fruits, vegetable growers and shippers, as well as U.S. food processors, wholesalers and retailers say this time it will be different. Companies have had the ability to voluntarily label by petitioning USDA for permission to include country-of-origin information on their products since the mid-1990s. In addition, the farm bill provision that made COOL the law of the land allows companies to label voluntarily until the mandatory labeling is implemented.
"We support the voluntary labeling approach because it informs consumers about agriculture products' country-of-origin and benefits U.S. producers by promoting American-grown foods," a statement released by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, National Pork Producers Council, United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, National Fisheries Institute, Produce Marketing Association, American Meat Institute, National Meat Association, Food Marketing Institute, National Grocers Association, and National Food Processors Association.
"This cooperative effort is built upon the commitment of all segments of the food production chain to work together to benefit both producers and consumers by providing product origin information without burdening anyone with added costs," the joint statement says. "Under this voluntary program, the labeling responsibility is placed in the hands of producers, processors, and retailers who choose to participate. Ultimately, however, the choice is in the hands of consumers at the retail market meat and fish cases and in the fruit and produce aisles."
Senators Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Tim Johnson, D-S.D. introduced new legislation last week that would implement COOL by the original September 30, 2004 deadline.
"I am particularly disturbed by reports that that the opponents of COOL are further undermining mandatory labeling by suggesting that we should let the large meatpackers label voluntarily," Daschle adds. "This is nothing but a ploy. Large meatpackers have refused to label voluntarily for years, and it is critical that we implement mandatory labeling to provide consumers the information they deserve."
America's producers of cattle, pork, seafood, fruits and vegetables, packers, shippers, processors, wholesalers and retailers are united behind a voluntary program that:
- Is market-driven - Consumer demand and industry promotional needs should shape the program.
- Recognizes existing labeling programs - Products that identify the farm, state or region of origin or certified U.S. brands, such as Black Angus Beef, should not require additional country labels. USDA already recognizes hundreds of voluntary programs for beef, pork, seafood, fruits and vegetables.
- Minimizes record-keeping - To the extent possible, country records made for other laws should suffice to verify where products originate. Only those companies that produce or directly import products should have to keep those records.
- Allows flexibility - More than 75% of produce items already have some medium for providing country information, such as packaging, stickers and twist-ties. Allow the industry to use these mediums.
- Is cost-effective - Labeling must be performed at the point in the supply chain where it is most efficient to do so. This may vary by product depending on the company that produces or imports the food and has firsthand knowledge of its origin.