Every fresh-food retail executive is asking the same question these days: What are we supposed to do about country-of-origin labeling? As proposed, the guidelines require that someone affix tags, stamps, signage or labels to fresh and frozen muscle cuts of beef, veal, lamb, pork, fish, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, and peanuts.
Unfortunately for us, the time for debating the merits of the regulations is long passed. Participation is currently voluntary, but becomes mandatory next year, by Sept. 30, 2004. Many retailers SN talks to are beginning to work toward compliance, though in certain regions they've been laboring under similar state laws for some time now:
In Florida, a law enacted in 1979 mandates that all producers, growers and shippers of fresh fruits and vegetables, and bee pollen and honey, must label the origin of the product. Sen. Bob Graham, a COOL proponent, has said the costs of complying with such a law have been minimal. "Grocery stores spend at most two hours and approximately $10.30 a week complying. Florida [state] estimates that it spends approximately $90,000 per year."
In Idaho, a law on the books since 1965 hasn't been enforced due to lack of manpower and resources, but it requires all foreign meat, poultry, eggs and butter to be marked with the country of origin.
In Maine, a 1989 COOL law applied only to produce imported from countries with pesticide standards lower than the United States. Changes to the law in 1999 now require country-of-origin labeling of all foreign produce packed in the state.
And in Mississippi, a law that took effect last July 1 (and based on similar legislation in Louisiana) mandates COO labeling on beef products sold in retail stores, providing three classes of beef products: "American," "Imported" and "Blend."
One retailer who operates stores in Florida recently said that his chain has been levied fines for non-compliance, even though the retailer has "operated with due diligence in keeping our produce displays properly labeled."
Indeed, it seems retailers stand to lose the most because they are the last link in the food supply chain, and the one directly selling these products to consumers -- the supposed beneficiaries of the legislation. What do consumers think about COOL? An informal survey conducted recently showed that nearly 90% of those polled do not look for such disclosures; additionally, in ranking product attributes, the respondents put flavor and quality at the top of the list (more than 90%), while origin ranked last, way below the others, at 20%.
And, in this day of terrorism, COOL carries vague hints of food security-related troubles, a dangerous and unnecessary association, given the tremendous increases in funding for policing imports. In the consumer's mind, if melons from Mexico or steaks from Canada are being labeled, then is there something wrong with them? Why is this important? Should I be concerned?
Such questions might compel them to extend those doubts to the entire category -- regardless of origin -- and sales will suffer. We've all seen it happen before. And that's why, without the proper context, these labels mean very little in a country that is comprised of hundreds of nationalities -- all of them shoppers.