After years of reprieves, the produce, meat and poultry industries may finally be required to comply with mandatory country of origin labeling by September 2008.
Many retailers are looking forward to COOL with a level of enthusiasm usually reserved for root canals. But industry efforts have helped write into the 2007 Farm Bill provisions that, if passed, will ease several of COOL's retailer-specific penalties and record-keeping requirements.
For example, retailers won't be liable for any misinformation provided by their suppliers. Records kept during the normal course of business will be sufficient for retailers to comply with the rules. And any product that is already labeled to indicate production in a U.S. state, region or locality — by a program such as Pride of New York or Minnesota Grown — will automatically be compliant.
Most opponents of COOL have argued that the requirements constitute an expensive marketing program that the federal government is forcing private industry to pay for. Buffeted as they were this year by countless reports of import scandals, product recalls, contamination scares and dead pets, America's supermarket shoppers are certainly prepped for any message about where their food comes from, though. In a July 2007 survey of 1,000 consumers by Consumer Reports magazine, 92% of respondents said they wanted to know which country produced any food they were buying.
“It's safe to say that the climate has changed when it comes to food safety or product safety,” said Lorna Christie, senior vice president of industry products and services for the Produce Marketing Association.
Consumer concerns about import safety aside — if they could in fact be put aside at any point in the near term — COOL certainly will require that a lot of money be spent defining throughout the supply chain where food is produced. That's not a safety program and it isn't much of a marketing program, but it does offer retailers key components of both.
If the 2007 Farm Bill passes, many of COOL's more onerous retail provisions will be dropped, presenting produce department managers with less of a burden and more of an opportunity. Existing state and regional marketing programs have already proved to be a good way to tap into interest in local foods, but shoppers are still going to expect their bananas and grapes in February. There's a story to be told there somewhere — whether it's a wintertime tale of the sunny plantations of Costa Rica, an exciting look at the global supply chain for local kids or a testament to how your company's bananas are sourced from Third World growers that pay their workers a fair wage and treat the land sustainably.
At their core, the popular organic and locally grown movements are about people wanting to feel more of a connection with their food, Christie noted.