The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Meats Get COOL

Meats Get COOL

Food Safety Update

July 31, 2007

Meat Gets COOL
FOOD SAFETY UPDATE
It looks good on seafood. Now, beef, pork, lamb and goat will get to wear the latest food accessory known as country of origin labeling, or COOL. Following days of negotiations, the House Agriculture Committee finally came to an agreement for labeling meats starting next year.
 
This version of COOL distinguishes product that was born, raised and slaughtered exclusively in the U.S. from imported meats. It also makes a distinction between domestic meat mixed with imported product and meat from animals born elsewhere but raised and slaughtered in the U.S.
 
For example, meat from cattle born in Mexico, but then raised and processed in the U.S. will include both countries on the label – and could read something like: “The beef in this package may come from cattle from the U.S.A. and Mexico.” The same rule applies to product from Canadian-born pigs. Ground products will require the listing of all possible countries of origin. Like with seafood, processed meats are exempt.
 
This ruling follows Bush’s establishment of a high-level government panel designed to recommend steps to guarantee the safety of food imports and other imported products. But it’s a compromise. The amended regulations soften penalties and ease up on record keeping procedures that the meat industry worried could lead to higher prices.
 
Still, neither consumer advocate groups or members of the beef industry are completely satisfied with the ruling. Beef producers point out that chicken, their primary protein competitor, is currently COOL-free. Consumer groups worry that these new labels may be unclear, and could damage the overall integrity of the labeling program.
 
The original regulations for COOL were actually proposed years ago as part of the 2002 Farm Bill. Since then, President Bush signed not one, but two extensions for mandatory labeling on all products except seafood. That extension expires September 30th, 2008. Other items, like fruit and vegetables, will have to work out agreements to cover their products by the deadline. Chicken isn’t on the list.
 
“Country of origin labeling was not developed either for nutrition or food safety purposes. It’s simply a means to allow people to find out where the product they are purchasing comes from,” says Martin O’Connor, Chief of the Standards, Analysis and Technology Branch at the USDA. “Certainly, though, China has heightened everyone’s awareness of this program.”
 
Indeed, more and more Americans are concerned about the safety of their imported foods, and many of these concerns stem from the perception that Chinese goods are dangerous, due to recent scares. A recent phone survey conducted by Consumer Reports found that 92% of Americans want to know what countries are producing the food they are buying. Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports,has called for COOL’s immediate implementation.
 
"Country of origin labeling has become as important to consumers as a nutrition or ingredient label. Consumers have a right and a want to know how and where their food is produced," says Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., Senior Scientist and Director ofConsumer Report's GreenerChoices.org.
 
Clearly, labeling is becoming a serious issue in the U.S., especially as China works to clean up their badly damaged food industry. China recently banned 13 companies were from exporting their products after they were found to be substandard; they executed former food and drug agency director Zheng Xiaoyu earlier this month.