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Food fight: Loophole found in country-of-origin labels

On Wednesday the food you buy won’t taste any differently, but you should know more about where it came from. Or not.

On Wednesday the food you buy won’t taste any differently, but you should know more about where it came from. Or not.

Oct. 1 is the day that the new Country of Origin Label (COOL) law goes into effect. The law, part of the 2008 Farm Bill, requires that meat and other agricultural products be identified by their source nation.

But a loophole in the rule already has farm-state senators, including Minnesota’s Norm Coleman and Amy Klobuchar, stirred up. It appears that the beef at your favorite butcher may be tagged with a multi-country origin label even if the cow qualifies as U.S.-only.

That’s not what lawmakers intended, said Coleman, Klobuchar and 28 other senators. In a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture last week, a bipartisan group of senators, led by Democrat Tom Harkin of Iowa, urged the agency to modify the rule.

“People want to know where their food comes from,” Harkin said. “Yet, USDA appears to be taking an overly broad approach to implementing this program, allowing certain food products to not be labeled as required by the farm bill. USDA’s rule also allows packers to just label all U.S. products jointly with other countries, limiting consumer choice. People are expecting to find meat labeled as exclusively U.S. product, not just hidden with everything else.”

The law, which applies to beef, pork, chicken and lamb, as well as to fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, creates four labeling categories:

1. Products exclusively born, raised and processed in the United States may be labeled as a U.S. product.

2. Products from animals that were not exclusively born, raised and processed in the United States and not imported for immediate slaughter will be labeled with all countries in which the animal may have been born, raised or processed.

3. An animal that was imported for immediate processing may be labeled as a product of the importing country and the United States.

Animals that were born, raised and processed in a foreign country will be labeled as a product of the country of origin.

If too many products are labeled No. 2, consumers won’t get much information.

“Farmers Union has been working on getting Country-Of-Origin- Labeling (COOL) implemented for a long time,” Doug Peterson, Minnesota Farmers Union president, told the Alexandria Echo Press. “For it to finally be happening is great for farmers and consumers alike, but for the big packing industries to try and get around the way Congress intended for COOL to be implemented is disgraceful.”

The new rule, which was included in the 2002 Farm Bill but never implemented, does not cover processed foods such as sausage, corned beef and chicken tenders. Food sold through food-service establishments, including restaurants, schools, hospitals and other institutions, also are exempt.

Retailers may use a wide range of methods to show country of origin, including labels, placards, stamps, bands, twist-ties and pin tags. The new rule also allows state, local or regional labeling of produce, such as “Michigan cherries” or “Idaho potatoes,” to be used to identify origin.

Chris Friesleben, director of communications for the grocery chain Hy-Vee, told Agri-News that his company would have preferred the government didn’t mandate COOL, but it is ready for the change.

“In addition, the next six months will be an education period,” she said. “The government is not going to be enforcing anything.”