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Pacific Northwest
Hawai'i CFS

Center for Food Safety Criticizes Loopholes in USDA Country of Origin Labeling Rules

January 20, 2009
Center for Food Safety

Group Urges Wider Application of Regulation to Ensure Public Right to Know

The Center for Food Safety (CFS) has criticized USDA’s Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) rule for falling short of fully protecting the public’s right to know where their food comes from. In its final rule the USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service defines the requirements for country of origin labeling on beef, pork, lamb, chicken, goat, shellfish, wild and farm raised fish, perishable agricultural commodities, peanuts, pecans, ginseng, and macadamia nuts. While the Center supports COOL, the final rule fails to require all retailers and food processors to provide such information, leaving consumers partially in the dark about the origins of their food.

“We are deeply concerned about the exceptions to the new COOL ruling,” says Jaydee Hanson, Policy Analyst for CFS. “It contains several huge loopholes which end up either misleading consumers or leaving them shamefully uninformed about the origins of their food.”

According to the COOL ruling:

  • If a retail product contains two different types of covered commodities (e.g., a bag of peas and carrots), it is considered a processed food item and is not subject to mandatory COOL;
  • Retail products that contain a covered commodity and a non-covered commodity, like a bag of lettuce with a dressing packet, are not included in COOL;
  • Items that are cooked, breaded, marinated, canned, smoked, cured, roasted, or restructured (e.g., emulsified or extruded) are not required to bear a COOL label.

“We strongly disagree with the exclusion of “mixed” food items from COOL regulations,” said Hanson. “At a time when more and more food products are geared towards consumer convenience – bagged salad mixes with dressing packets, pre-cooked or marinated meats and poultry, mixed fruits and vegetables – it is disappointing that the agency chose to leave such commonplace products out of COOL requirements.”

AMS lists the several examples of “mixed” foods not covered by COOL. They include: a salad mix that contains lettuce and a dressing packet, a salad mix that contains lettuce and carrots, a fruit cup that contains melons, bananas, and strawberries; a bag of mixed vegetables that contains peas and carrots.

Moreover, food service establishments, such as restaurants, cafeterias, lunch rooms, food stands, saloons, taverns, bars, butcher shops, delis and even in-store food stations, such as salad or sandwich bars, are exempt from COOL. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Americans spend at least 44% of their food dollars in such food service establishments (Consumer Expenditure Survey, 2005).

These exemptions stem partially from the narrow definition of “retailer” in the final rule, and from an illogical exemption for foods that have been cooked.

In the rules initially proposed, items that were cooked would have been included in COOL labeling, but the new rules exempt cooked foods as a “processed food item.” The new rules rejected industry requests to exempt such “processing” as peeling, coring and slicing from COOL, stating that “a consumer would not eat a pineapple that wasn’t peeled, cored, and sliced… Such processing thus does not change the character of the product but rather prepares it for consumption.” But the agency took a completely different stance on the cooking of meat and poultry products.

“Similar logic would dictate that since the vast majority of consumers would not eat raw chicken (nor raw pork, goat meat, ground meats, lamb, or beef), cooked chicken and meat products should not be exempt from COOL simply by virtue of their being cooked,” said Hanson. “We agree that peeling and coring a pineapple, peeling shrimp, and shucking corn are merely further preparation for consumption, but to then assert that cooking meat and poultry is not is inconsistent and illogical.”

Similarly, while the Agency found freezing to be merely “a means of preservation”, which would not result in a processed food product, it exempted products from COOL that have been canned or cured, also means of preservation, by deeming them processed foods.

“Unfortunately, COOL will have little meaningful impact on food decision-making if so few food products and retailers are actually required to participate,” said Hanson. “Americans support country of origin labeling because they want to know where their food comes from, and we believe the labeling rule should be applied as broadly as possible wherever food is purchased.”