USDA says COOL enforcement will cost $9.6 million
Congress needs to provide USDA more money for enforcement of the Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) program if the job is to be done properly, USDA officials said last week, while advocates of labeling said they will monitor the labeling program and may seek a legislative fix to problems with it. Last Tuesday, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) put into effect a 2008 Farm Bill provision requiring mandatory country-of-origin labeling at the final point of retail sale for beef, lamb, chicken, pork and goat meat, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, peanuts, pecans, macadamia nuts and ginseng. Fish and shellfish have had mandatory COOL since 2005, which also includes defining whether those seafood items are caught in the wild or farm-raised.
Agriculture Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Services Bruce Knight and USDA AMS Administrator Lloyd Day, who is in charge of the new program, told reporters at a technical briefing last week that Congress provided $1 million per year for enforcement of the fish and shellfish program. However, since Congress included the Fiscal Year 2009 Agriculture appropriations bill in the continuing resolution through March, they did not expect it to contain any additional funds for enforcing the law covering the new products.
Knight said the Bush administration had asked Congress for $9.6 million to carry out enforcement activity. In a telephone news conference with reporters from around the country on Tuesday, Knight said USDA will use the existing $1 million intended for the fish and shellfish program to conduct enforcement activities on the entire program through March, “and we’ll look forward to seeing if that is actually included in an appropriations bill when, indeed, we do get an appropriations bill.” Enforcement may be a big issue in the COOL labeling program because audits have shown errors in the existing fish and shellfish program; some producer and consumer groups say USDA has not written strict enough rules to enforce the law. Retailers are required to keep records on the covered products so the country of origin can be traced back to the supplier.
AMS has hired the state departments of agriculture to audit the records of the fish and shellfish retailers and plans to hire the same agencies to audit the records on the newly covered products. Audits of 1,662 stores that sold fish and shellfish in 2007 showed that 32.6 percent of retailers had violated the COOL law. The audit found that 34 percent of the stores had failed to label fish by country of origin, 35 percent had failed to label it by method of production, 10 percent had mislabeled the country of origin, 2 percent had mislabeled the method of production, and 19 percent had failed to keep proper records.
The law provides for a fine of $1,000 per violation, but Day said AMS had worked with the stores to improve their performance and has not imposed any fines.
Knight said AMS would give retailers six months to be in full compliance, but stores that do not begin to label immediately will be subject to prosecution.
Knight also said the Bush administration hopes to publish the final labeling rule by the end of the year, but National Farmers Union President Tom Buis told reporters last Wednesday that USDA should hold off on publishing the final rule until the end of the implementation period in March, which would put it in the hands of the next administration.
Buis and Consumer Federation of America food director Chris Waldrop said their groups will monitor grocery stores for labeling over the next six months. “Wherever I travel, I will go to a local grocery store to see what is happening,” Buis said. Buis and Waldrop also said they will mount legislative efforts next year to force USDA to make sure U.S. beef is not labeled as possibly coming from Canada or Mexico and require labeling on some forms of imported products USDA has declared exempt from the law. Consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch said last week that USDA has written a definition of “processed” that exempts from labeling over 60 percent of pork, the majority of frozen vegetables, an estimated 95 percent of peanuts, pecans, and macadamia nuts, and multiingredient fresh produce items such as fruit salads and salad mixes. But Knight and AMS Administrator Lloyd Day said USDA has followed the law carefully.
Sens. Hillary Clinton, D- NY, and Russ Feingold, D- WI, last week introduced a bill that would require COOL on dairy products.
“With one tainted foreign food scare after another, consumers deserve to know exactly where their food is coming from,” Clinton said in a news release. “The recent concerns raised about contamination of milk products internationally is a clear reminder that it is critical to include dairy products in our country of origin labeling rules.”
Feingold added, “Consumers choose Wisconsin-made dairy products because they expect the highest quality product. While the FDA needs to do more to keep contaminated products out, consumers should have the ability to look for and choose dairy products made with milk produced by hard-working American dairy farmers as a sign of quality and to provide peace of mind.” Consumers can report possible labeling violations or the absence of labeling by calling USDA at 202/ 720-4486 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. — DTN