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Monday, August 2, 2010

Country-of-Origin Labeling for Foods

Remy Jurenas
Specialist in Agricultural Policy

Many retail food stores are now required to inform consumers about the country of origin of fresh fruits and vegetables, seafood, peanuts, pecans, macadamia nuts, ginseng, and ground and muscle cuts of beef, pork, lamb, chicken, and goat. The rules are required by the 2002 farm bill (P.L. 107- 171) as amended by the 2008 farm bill (P.L. 110-246). Other U.S. laws have required such labeling, but only for imported food products already pre-packaged for consumers.

Both the authorization and implementation of country-of-origin labeling (COOL) by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service have not been without controversy. Much attention has focused on the labeling rules that now apply to meat and meat product imports. A number of leading agricultural and food industry groups continue to oppose COOL as costly and unnecessary. They and some major food and livestock exporters to the United States (e.g., Canada and Mexico) also view the new requirement as trade-distorting. Others, including some cattle and consumer groups, maintain that Americans want and deserve to know the origin of their foods, and that many U.S. trading partners have their own, equally restrictive import labeling requirements.

Obama Administration officials announced in February 2009 that they would allow the final rule on COOL, published just before the end of the Bush Administration on January 15, 2009, to take effect as planned on March 16, 2009. However, the Secretary of Agriculture also urged affected industries to adopt—voluntarily—several additional changes that, the Obama Administration asserts, would provide more useful origin information to consumers and also would more closely adhere to the intent of the COOL law.

Retail compliance with COOL requirements appears to have proceeded reasonably well. To address identified labeling problems, observers have called for additional outreach to retailers to help them better understand what is required and the steps they can take to improve compliance.

The most significant issue that has arisen to date is the November 2009 decision by Canada and Mexico to challenge COOL rules and the "voluntary suggestions" using the World Trade Organization's (WTO's) trade dispute resolution process. Both countries argue that COOL has a trade-distorting impact by reducing the shipment of their cattle and hogs to the U.S. market, as U.S. livestock market participants began to make adjustments in anticipation of new meat labeling rules. They also argue that COOL rules violate trade rules that the United States agreed to under the WTO and the North American Free Trade Agreement. Responses to this development reflect the heated debate seen earlier among key players in the livestock sector. U.S. meatpackers and processors support Canada's and Mexico's position that COOL violates U.S. trade obligations. Some cattle producer groups argue that COOL is consistent with U.S. commitments and does not discriminate between imported and domestic beef. Twenty-five Senators have expressed their support for COOL, noting that other countries (including Canada and Mexico) require country-of-origin information to be provided to consumers.

The 111th Congress is considering legislation that would expand COOL labeling requirements to cover more food products. H.R. 2749, the House-passed food safety bill, would expand such labeling to apply to all processed foods and to other agricultural commodities not now covered by the farm bill and other statutory provisions. The Senate-reported companion bill (S. 510) does not include a comparable provision, but pertinent amendments may be offered during floor debate. Separately, S. 1783 would require retailers to implement COOL for dairy products.

Date of Report: July 15, 2010
Number of Pages: 20
Order Number: RS2955
Price: $29.95

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