Getting Hip to COOL

Beginning next week, you may notice more labels at the meat counter and in the produce aisle of your neighborhood supermarket.

As of Sept. 30, the federally mandated Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) law will go into effect at supermarkets nationwide. The COOL requirements for beef, lamb, pork, seafood, produce and peanuts have been on the books since 2002 as part of that year’s Farm Bill; however, implementation has been painfully gradual, rolling out with seafood labels in 2004.

The list of COOL-required categories has since expanded; as part of the 2008 Farm Bill, the rules now apply to chicken, goat, macadamia nuts, pecans and ginseng.

With COOL, shoppers will now know, for example, if a head of garlic was grown in California or in China, which has earned a grisly reputation for exporting tainted food. (Remember last year’s pet food nightmare?)

It should also help eliminate some of the guesswork that’s plagued recent food safety scares here at home, including this summer’s salmonella outbreak, originally thought to have been caused by tomatoes but instead was caused by two kinds of peppers from Mexico.

And for those interested in the distance that food travels, you’ll be able to distinguish Florida oranges from those grown in Israel or South Africa, for example.

Cushioned among the various COOL categories, however, are a handful of exemptions worth studying; the requirements apply to retail stores with annual produce purchases of at least $230,000, which would likely exclude small butcher shops and fish markets. The law also excludes each category’s processed counterpart, i.e. peanut butter, bagged salad mixes, smoked salmon, breaded chicken tenders and marinated pork tenderloins. In the frozen section, single-item bags of fruit and vegetables fall under COOL, but if they’re part of a medley, COOL does not apply.

If you’re wondering how you’re going to keep track as you navigate the aisles, print out this downloadable “COOL Tool” compiled by Consumers Union, which sifts through the COOL and un-COOL piles.

Let us know whether or not you lose your COOL.

By Kim ODonnel |  September 24, 2008; 12:40 PM ET Food Politics , Food Shopping , Food in the News
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

COOL is not cool and may lead to either a false sense of security for foods from one country or a prejudice to buying from certain countries when that food may actually be safe to consume.

Posted by: Mind-boggling | September 24, 2008 2:11 PM

Hey Mind-boggling, you took the words right out of my mouth!

Posted by: K | September 24, 2008 4:19 PM

I remember the pet food scare all too well. One of my cats ate recalled Iams, even though I was checking the serial numbers every day. By coincidence, he got sick at the same time. I went thru days of worry.

I've been reading the labels on seafood for years and welcome more information.

Posted by: Arlington Gay | September 25, 2008 11:58 AM

I don't see how more information for the consumer could be harmful. My only concern is a rather philosophical one about the nanny-state government, but as long as it stays as labeling, I'm fine.

Posted by: DC Cubefarm | September 25, 2008 12:58 PM

I think this is a requrirement that should have been in place LONG ago! I'd prefer to be able to choose produce that was picked ripe, not stuff that's picked before ripening, then has traveled hundreds or thousands of miles, and is gassed and waxed to appear ripe. Also buying locally grown produce supports local farms, farmers, and businesses and helps to prevent larger scale industrial farms from squeezing out the smaller operations. Wouldn't you rather know where your food comes from and not have to wonder how long it's taken to get from the ground to the truck to the warehouse to the store shelf?

Posted by: lisa | September 26, 2008 9:35 PM

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