It’s COOL to Know Your Food

September 14, 2008 at 4:42 pm 1 comment

Over the last year we’ve worked harder to fill our larders with locally grown, locally raised - preferably organic foods.  During this little journey I’ve been unpleasantly surprised at how difficult it was to find out where the food I was buying came from. Country of origin labeling, or COOL, is a federally mandated program that will require most retailers to include information about where our foods came from on labels. 

Political foot-dragging meant that the program was 6 years in the making, but as of September 30, 2008 U.S. consumer will know just where their food originates.  Sort of…

From Scientific American:

The measure – backed by farmers eager to compete with foreign producers and food safety advocates – requires meat, poultry and produce to contain labels listing their country of origin.

… Notable exceptions to the requirement include products sold in butcher shops and fish markets — as well as in restaurants where disease outbreaks often originate, the Sacramento Bee wrote in a recent preview of the law.

and…

What’s more, packers don’t have to be specific about where the meat consumers are buying came from, the Des Moines Register noted in a recent piece. Instead, they can list all the countries they bought from during a given period. “So in the store, ground beef could be labeled like this: ‘Product of the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and/or Uruguay,’” the Register explained.

Hmmmm, does this mean that that bulk package of bargain bin burger will now come with a label that includes more unintelligible information than Dr. Bronner’s Soap?

According to yesterday’s Chicago Tribune:

Food safety groups have hailed COOL as a necessary step toward broader consumer education and buying choices. But now they complain that the Department of Agriculture has defined it as narrowly as possible.

For example, they say, the agency has defined a host of foods as “processed,” such as mixed frozen vegetables, which exempts them from the new law.

“When they finalized this rule, they bent over backward to make as few things be covered as possible,” said Michael Hansen, a senior staff scientist with Consumers Union. “There are giant, giant loopholes in the law.”

One Mack-truck-sized loophole is the law’s definition of “processed.”  Again from the Trib:

“It’s considered processed if it’s combined with one other ingredient,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, a non-profit consumer rights organization. “We think they’re being incredibly broad.”

O-Kay.  So, if I break down and buy that pre-marinated pork loin, does the marinade constitute processing and make the product exempt from labeling?  If the packing plant adds salt and pepper (or artificial coloring) to my steak – is it now an exempt, processed product?  I suspect I know the answer to this, and I expect that the number of products I’m willing to buy from the grocery store will decrease significantly soon. 

The issue becomes even more convoluted when one deals with imported meat:

Another controversy involves imported livestock. Under COOL, meat derived from cattle imported into the U.S. for immediate slaughter can bear a label that states it’s a product of its origin country and the United States, even though the animal was raised entirely outside the U.S.

So some parts of COOL are not so cool.  Still, the law seems to represent a step in the right direction, especially for those of us who want to know where our food comes from.  And according to a poll by Consumer Reports - 92% of Americans fall into that category.

Now if they’d just expand the program to include ALL human and pet foods….

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