June 17 • 01:20 AM

'Cool' food now on the shelves

Mandatory country of origin labels appear on produce, meats & more

October 08, 2008
TRI-CITY AREA — Pick up a pound of ground beef and in addition to the price tag, you'll now see a second label—country of origin.

As of September 30, the federal government requires that all cuts of meat, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables and various nuts sold in retail establishments be labeled to show where they were grown or raised. The mandate comes as part of the recently adopted Farm Bill.

According to the Michigan Farm Bureau, the country-of-origin labeling (COOL) system will benefit consumers interested in purchasing local food or those who are concerned about food safety.

"Mandatory country-of-origin labeling has multiple benefits. With COOL, consumers know where their food comes from and can make a conscious effort to look for the USA seal and support America's farmers," said Ernie Birchmeier, Michigan Farm Bureau livestock and diary specialist.

"In addition, the labeling will be an asset in the traceability of food products during an outbreak of a food-borne illness."

Consumers will see three different categories of labeling: a product of the USA, a product of the USA and another Country or a product of one or more foreign countries. Only muscle cuts or ground meat products from beef, veal, lamb, goat, pork or chicken sold in a retail setting must be labeled.

Federal law has expanded country-of-origin labeling requirements to fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables and most cuts of meat. photo by Maria Brown.

Products exempt from COOL labeling include those served at restaurants or cafeterias; also any processed meat such as sausages, hot dogs and lunch meat.

As to be expected, costs for implementing the labeling system will eventually trickle down to consumers.

In the first year alone, it's expected to total $2.5 billion for the country's retailers, farmers, food processors and other intermediary companies.

Farm Bureau officials say livestock farmers should expect to sign affidavits verifying a commodity's country of origin with the company or business that markets the product.

"It will be very similar to other quality assurance programs that farmers are accustomed to," Birchmeier said.

As for record keeping requirements, Birchmeier said, they are less bureaucratic and more efficient than those previously proposed by the government.

Records typically maintained in a farming operation—animal health papers, import or customs documents or producer affidavits—can serve as verification.

By state law, cattle producers must already tag all of their animals with radio ear tags before sale or slaughter. These will be accepted as country of origin verification too.

"The new requirements are intended to facilitate and simplify compliance for the meat and poultry industries," Birchmeier said.

"Fortunately, Michigan's animal identification system for the cattle industry is compliant with the National Animal Identification System and will be accepted by the COOL requirement."

COOL was originally established in the 2002 Farm Bill but only gradually implemented. Wild and farm-raised fish was the first commodity to come under the labeling requirements in 2004.

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