Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) From a Customer's Perspective...

Ole! Is that orange you’re snacking on from California, Florida, or Seville, Spain? Is the beef for dinner tonight Texas beef, Nebraska beef, or Canadian beef? Is there any beef we have to worry about these days or not?

Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) , recently required by the USDA, gives customers information as to where their food comes from. Knowing this can help you make wiser decisions when selecting food for your family.

Country of Origin Labeling requires grocery stores and markets to state the country where the food came from or traveled from. The label must be clearly written. Some products may have it on the printed label of the package; other stores will have signs posted. Either method is acceptable as long as the information is clear and easy to understand.

What must be labeled? Basically, produce, meat and seafood.

  • Produce: Most stores have signs or tags that clearly state where the product comes from. You’ll usually find it on the price sign (in grocery store terms, the "price point") but it might be on the packaging itself. All non-processed produce must have a COOL label of some kind with it. That head of romaine lettuce in the refrigerated case will have a tag as to where it came from. However, that bag of Caesar salad mix may not. What’s the difference? Prepared foods, or foods mixed with other ingredients, do not need COOL compliance information.

  • Meat: The meat department will carry the same labels, on either the tags or the signs. So you’ll know that the lamb chops came from New Zealand, or the rib eye steaks from the USA, and you can decide what foods are appropriate for you and your family. The same practice of prepared vs. non-prepared foods applies here. The raw ground beef in your meat case will have a Country of Origin Label compliance tag on it, but the hamburger patties mixed with cheddar cheese or other ingredients will not.

  • Seafood: One of the biggest reasons for Country of Origin Label regulations is the widening availability of seafood. It can be flown all over the world within hours or days, arriving fresh or frozen at your local seafood counter. With such great availability, this requirement lets you know where the fish came from, as well as whether it was raised in the wild or on a farm. Again, if it's a prepared food (such as stuffed sea bass), it will not have a country of origin (COOL) compliance sign.

How does this help you? Knowing the country the food came from can help as you shop, especially if you are paying attention to weather systems, political upheavals, and societal pressures in the international and national news. These labels give customers the ability to support their own economies or those of other countries. Many people in the USA prefer to purchase only from the USA, and the labels make it easier to do. Similarly, some consumers prefer not to support certain economies because of events occurring in those countries.

In addition, this labeling makes business simpler for the retailers and producers. Grocery store managers (or their purchasers), for instance, may decide to purchase locally, which will improve the quality and freshness of the food and also will support the local economy.

From a retailer perspective, COOL compliance regulations increase costs which, of course, are passed on to consumers. The USDA projects costs for processing standards, paperwork, and training at almost 2.6 billion dollars (US). However, the cost is outweighed by the safety advantage of knowing where your food actually comes from.

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