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Is Country-of-Origin Labeling a Food Safety Issue?

Country-of-origin labeling (COOL) is not a food safety issue. Except when it is.

The law requires that much of our food be labeled with its source country, but the requirement that meat be labeled with the specific country where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered is currently an issue at the World Trade Organization and in the U.S. court system.

Below the surface of those proceedings is the question of whether COOL involves food safety. If it does, it would be easier for the government to make it “compelled speech” under the U.S. Constitution, which protects commercial speech unless a substantial public interest is involved.

But the American Meat Institute (AMI) and other packer and processing groups that have filed a lawsuit to repeal COOL are emphasizing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s own statement that the program “is neither a food safety or traceability program but rather a consumer information program.”

“The Government does not contend that COOL serves a health or safety interest, and that should be determinative of the matter,” wrote the groups’ attorneys in a letter filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in January.

The National Farmers Union (NFU) and other Defendant-Intervenors in the case responded with their own letter, stating that just because COOL is not a USDA tool for ensuring the safety of the food system, “does not imply it cannot also serve a safety interest.”

COOL provides information that consumers have a right to know before making a purchase, says NFU vice president of government relations Chandler Goule. For example, he says, knowing the origin of the beef in the supermarket can be important if a common importer has an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

“Every country has different production practices and different production standards,” he says. “I deliberately will avoid fish and seafood products from Vietnam. I’ve been there, and I simply do not think they have the food safety standards needed for me to feel comfortable purchasing that product.

“I know COOL is not a food safety label, but because of the information I already know, I can make an informed decision on what products I want to purchase,” Goule adds.

A survey conducted by the Consumer Federation of America that found 90 percent of Americans favored requiring a label with the country of origin on meat, and 87 percent favored requiring where the animal was born, raised and processed.

National Cattleman’s Beef Association (NCBA) president Scott George disagrees that COOL is something consumers actually want. In a press conference about COOL and the farm bill, he cited a Kansas State University finding that most consumers don’t actually look at country-of-origin labels when deciding which products to purchase.

“If the court determines that COOL has food safety implications,” says Patrick Woodall, Food & Water Watch’s research director, “it will weigh these public health benefits more favorably even if the labels purportedly compel some commercial speech.”

The latest version of COOL regulations has been in effect since May 2013. A challenge to the current rule is currently before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The court heard oral arguments last Jan. 9, and a decision could come at any time. The WTO dispute hearing is scheduled to start on Feb. 18.

© Food Safety News
  • Oginikwe

    For consumers, it is a food safety issue regardless of what the government says, and they know that. They didn’t missed the backlash on chicken processed in China.

  • flameforjustice

    Personally I don’t eat any meat of any kind. Regardless of me I have family members, people I care for and all the children who eat meat . Those above named persons need to have this information because everyone should have the right to where their meat came from, where it was slaughtered and processed. For those who object to this what’s the problem? If there is not a problem transparency is best, and if there is a problem transparency is a must.

  • flameforjustice

    It’s quite obvious AMI, meat processors, slaughter houses, meat packers and all involved have something to hide because of their objections!!!!

  • Carole

    The same discussion for introducing these standards is going on in Europe. The info “From cattle born in X, raised iin Y and slaughtered in Z” is not enough. We recently in Europe (knowing the EU market, 28 countrie has no borders for trade althought each country implements EU common legislation, agricultural and cattle raising/hygiene pratice vary as according to different countries GNP levels) had a big scandal with horse meat sold as beef to the industry and becoming raviolois, lasagne, pizzas etc…. Besides the obvious allergic risk, the ethical issues and the fact consumers unkowingly ate meat they probably would not like to eat, this revealed how the various professions, cattle raisers, slaughter houses, meat producers were cheated. The horses had been rightly slaughtered and labeled as horse meat, however the labels were changed while transiting through a very opaque network (a one-man network) of companies trading with eat (agents) through the EU and based in the Netherlands. One very large processed food producer, a renowned company with a good reputation, the lifelong result of to generations of entrepreneurship, simply went bankrupt within some months, because no supermarkets, especially not the discounts with a need to constantly have a good image (and accounting for a lage proportion of the business of lasagne and pizzas and high calories/low-cost foods), would place orders anylonger. And this although the company immediately took action, tested all lots, called back and destroyed what should be, thoroughly cleansed their machines and started testing all incoming meat supply, AND did the adequate communication on the subject. Results: bankrupcy, loss of capital, hundreds of workers sent into unemployment in a region already hardly hit by little employment. So the issues go well beyond what our individual tastes may or may not be. The more these scandals shake the little industry there is left in OECD countries, the more unemployment. this goes for the EU as well as the US (as the food industryoften is a good employment sector for unskilled work force, a workforce otherwise becoming more and more unemployable in our hi-tech, high skilled society).This gambling with consumer trust can ruin companies, send workers into long-term unemployment, result in loss of capital or equity…Don’t worry for consumers, they will start eating something else in the short run and some opportunity seeker will fill the gap. The problem are the disruptive effects of destroyed companies. This goes for restaurants as well. And think of hundreds of workers becoing unemployed just because one man build up a rotten trading network, injecting old, retired horses’meat into the minced meat processing industry of ready to warm-up food.

    Please don’t comment that it’s just so easy to buy fresh meat, grind it, bake pasta dough, cut vegetables and cook pasta/lasagne/racioli sauce, miw with the meat and fill raviolis and bake them. Not to mention starting all over the next time as it does not keep well when home-made. Most hard-working people, in particular entrepreneurs with small income and long working hours, salaried workers and others with long work-home pendling distancecan hardly cope with just shopping for food within opening hours….which happens to be their working hours as well. , then there are those living in small housing/kitchens, students with no kitchen and no student cafeteria, elderly or sick or handicaped people who cannot overcome to cook every day and must rely on ready-to-heat food, unfortunately. Would’nt it be nice if things could be different and ready food supplied at decent prices without tampering with ingrédients but this is a slightly different discussion…

    So to put it short I’d say this labelling is very needed and should not stop with the localisation of the slaughter house. (1) It should include the trading chain all the way to the processing plant and therefore the following should be added : “….traded by Company / Agent A, processed by B (or B for Reseller C) and sold by Retailer D”. (2) tags following the life cycle of cattle apply currently only to cattle, in the EU it is being considered to extend it to sheep, goats and poultry (the Id tag cattle have in their ear). As it turns out, the horse meat scandal was possible ONLY because horses are registered but are not followed all the way to the slaughter house. Once they are exported (i.e leave their country of registration), the tracking system ends….That’s where you find the most important reason for a country by country tracking system(and the US are concerned when buying meat from abroad or processed food as well) and why it should absolutely be extended, not only to raised poultry, sheep and goats but also to horses. AND included in the label of the processed food.