Until now, consumers who suffered food poisoning and the investigators looking for the cause, had no idea from which country the food that was eaten came from. With the new COOL (Country of Origin Labeling) law taking effect after September 30, 2008, all that will change, with a few exceptions.
Now when you get food poisoning, whether it is from food you bought at a grocery in San Diego, California, Orange County, CA, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Anaheim, Buena Park, Palm Springs, Temecula, Indian Wells, La Quinta or a restaurant in Ventura, Carlsbad, Oceanside, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, Irvine, Santa Ana, Costa Mesa, Yorba Linda, Fullerton, Ontario, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Bernardino, Temecula, or Palm Desert, when the Department of Health investigates what made you sick, they may be able to determine this more accurately and without causing major economic damage to agricultural interests not at fault.
After years of lobbying for delays by grocery lobbying groups who argued the law would be too costly to implement, and who lobbied for delays, COOL has at last taken effect.
Now investigators will have an easier time tracking down the country of source. As it has often been raw food, such as peppers from Mexico most recently, the effect of the law will immediately help investigators. Health conscious consumers may feel more loyalty to a retailer who doesn’t just comply grudgingly with the law but who touts their going an extra step or two to let their shoppers know exactly what came from where.
Other food poisoning outbreaks in recent years have involved spinach, and beef. Now with the milk scare from China, there are calls to extend the law to dairy products.
There are also exceptions in COOL for butchers, fish markets, restaurants, restaurants in hotels, school cafeterias, and small retailers. Additionally if spices, sauce or breading has been added, no labeling is required. Though not exactly food, the law also does not apply to pharmaceuticals, though there are calls to extend the law to them. Produce mixed in displays may simply be labeled as being “from two or more countries of origin.”
Lawmakers and consumer groups are angry that the USDA seems to be attempting to evade congressional intent by allowing steaks and other meat cuts to be labeled with multiple country of origin labels. Congress only intended that exception for ground beef or for animals raised in more than one country. It has been said that there is a chasm of difference between the statutory language that was passed by Congress and the rule allowing multiple of country origin labels drafted by the USDA.
There are other discrepancies with how the law will be applied. Fish caught off the coast of Alaska by a Chinese or Japanese owned ship may be labeled as a product of China or Japan. Beef raised in another country that spends 30 days in a feed lot in the U.S. can be labeled as coming from the U.S.
Retailers are given discretion how they label the food. Meat counters, for instance, may simply list all the countries where the meat is produced, or they can label each cut. Hamburger will still likely give the consumer pause as meat that is ground up may come from numerous countries.
Once compliance goes into effect, businesses may be fined $1,000 per violation. The law is expected to cost at least $2 billion to implement.