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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 January 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 began in mid-February 2014.