COOL changes discussed

Cattle Market & Farm Reports, Editorials
Jan 31, 2005
by WLJ
— Seafood protocol could set precedent for beef.
The sixth annual R-CALF USA convention included a “surf and turf” theme during its country-of-origin-labeling (COOL) session. Margaret Bryan Curole, shrimper and representative of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, spoke to the group about the way her industry deals with new compliance rules for mandatory COOL, some of which could affect beef producers down the road.
One of the major changes Curole cited was the exemption of labeling of processed foods. USDA defines a processed food as an item that “is changed in character by processing or combining it with other food components.” By this definition, Curole said a wider range—approximately 50 percent—of seafood product is exempted.
“Exempting 50 percent of the product does not accurately reflect the law, nor consumer preference to know the country of origin of the seafood they purchase,” said Curole.
Curole used canned salmon as an example. Under the new COOL regulations, this product is exempt from COOL. “In these cases, wild salmon fishing communities in the U.S., will not have the opportunity to benefit since consumers will not be able to choose their product based on this knowledge and consumers will remain in the dark about where their food comes from,” she said.
She also indicated that the regulation change on processed fish is especially worrisome to that industry since research has indicated that most of those products are found to come from other countries and have high levels of contaminates. Some of the contaminates are chemicals banned in the U.S., but permitted in other countries. She noted that only one to two percent of all seafood imported into the U.S. is inspected.
“COOL labeling will allow consumers to know if the seafood is farm raised in countries with less stringent health regulations,” said Curole.
Just as some in the beef industry believe, Curole said, many in the seafood industry believe USDA should maintain country-of-origin information throughout the chain of production.
“If a viral outbreak occurs, the seafood in every grocery store freezer and at every fish farm has to be traced back to every source,” said Curole.
USDA perspective
Bill Sessions deputy administrator of USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS) addressed the crowd about the COOL changes, and noted that the official rule for COOL was issued in October 2004 and the effective date is April 2005. The principal components of the interim final rule are: who must label, what must be labeled, determining origin and method of production, record-keeping, and compliance and enforcement. These components are some of the same issues R-CALF members have been dealing with, meaning the seafood industry could set precedence for the beef industry if and when mandatory COOL comes to fruition.
In terms of labeling, Sessions explained that Congress was very clear in saying that designated retailers are defined in the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act (PACA). The PACA definition exempts a lot of small fish markets, as well as restaurants and food service establishments. These establishments will lawfully be allowed to sell seafood without labeling it’s country of origin.
To address Curole’s concern over the exclusion of processed foods, Sessions reiterated that was also a requirement of Congress’ law, which USDA had to interpret.
“The statute that Congress gave us said that any time a covered commodity was an ingredient in a processed food item, it was exempt from labeling,” said Sessions. He added that the food product either had to undergo a change of character through cooking, curing, canning, smoking or restructuring or be combined with another commodity to be considered as a processed food.
For farm-raised seafood to be labeled as of U.S. origin, it must be hatched, raised, harvested and processed in the U.S. and not undergo a substantial transformation outside of the U.S. As far as beef, animals must be born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S. to receive U.S. country of origin labeling.
In a departure from the proposed rule, Sessions noted that each of the processes for farm-raised fish must be noted. For example, he said some fish are hatched in Canada and brought to the U.S. to be raised and processed. Under the previous rule, those fish would have been labeled as U.S. origin. However, after revisions, the final rule mandates that those fish be labeled as Canadian origin, processed in the U.S., the same label required by the Customs Department. Sessions said this simplifies the rule and should reduce the cost.
In the instance that a product is blended, he indicated that the label must say all the countries that influenced the making of the product. According to the proposed rule, the countries were to be listed according to the amount present. This type of rule could set tenure for the beef industry when selling hamburger.
Sessions noted the changes made to record-keeping requirements for mandatory COOL. Under the proposed rule, suppliers would have had to maintain records for two years, but under the final rule, they are only required to keep records for one year. Retailers have to keep records for one year as well. This is expected to result in lower costs for maintaining COOL.
The other change to the record-keeping regulation is that suppliers only have to identify the previous source and the subsequent recipient.
In terms of the cost of implementing mandatory COOL for the seafood industry, Sessions remarked that USDA’s estimated cost for the proposed rule was $159 million. Because of the program changes, he said, the new estimate reflects a cost of $89 million.
On a final note, Sessions said the comment period is open until Feb. 2. He suggested producers visit USDA’s COOL web site, review the official regulations and submit comments before the final rule is published in the Federal Register. Sessions did not give an indication as to when the final rule would be published. — WLJ