If you feel a chill in the air it’s not just because autumn is closing in. It’s also because the mandatory country-of-origin labeling program goes into effect on Sept. 30.

Implementation became final with the rule’s inclusion in the 2008 Farm Bill. It covers muscle cuts and ground pork, beef, veal, lamb, chicken and goat. It also includes perishable agricultural commodities such as fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, macadamia nuts, pecans, ginseng and peanuts. (Fish and shellfish began a labeling program in October 2004.)

COOL actually amends the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 and requires retailers to notify their customers of the country where a product originated.

Products are excluded if they are an ingredient in a processed-food item. In that vein, USDA also revised its processed-food definition to include products that undergo a physical or chemical change such as cooking, curing and smoking. Restructured products or those that have been combined with other food components such as breading and sauces are exempt as well. National Pork Producers Council officials offer some product examples, such as meatballs, sausage, breaded cutlets and teriyaki-flavored pork loin. 

It’s no surprise that much concern has focused on labeling ground products. According to USDA, labeling rules for ground pork, beef, lamb, goat and chicken require a listing of all countries of origin “that may be reasonably contained.” So what is reasonable? USDA cites “when a raw material from a specific origin is not in a processor’s inventory for more than 60 days, that country shall no longer be included as a possible country of origin.”

This is a retail-only law, so foodservice establishments such as cafeterias, food stands, lunchrooms, restaurants and others are not included. 

While COOL goes into effect on Sept. 30, USDA is allowing a grace period for products that entered the pipeline prior to that date. USDA will conduct education and outreach activities for six months after the start date, to help the industry comply with the law. Penalties do run up to $1,000 per violation for both suppliers and retailers found in violation, of which USDA will be the only enforcement arm.

Concerning live animals, NPPC officials point out that any animals in the United States on or before July 15 that remained here continuously will be considered of U.S. origin.

While the labeling responsibility falls with grocery retailers, that’s not to say they are in this alone. Responsibilities will trickle back to processors and producers as the origin records must follow the animal to its final destination.

Retailers are required to keep records on the product’s origin for one year and be able to retrieve them within five business days for USDA review, if needed.

Actually, the commodity supplier is responsible for initiating a country-of-origin declaration. That means the packer must possess or have “legal access” to records that verify an animal’s origin. NPPC officials point out that, in addition to “normal production and other records,” producer affidavits verifying the animal’s origin will fit the bill, provided the person has firsthand knowledge of the animal’s origin.

USDA specifies that producers enrolled in the National Animal Identification System or other recognized official identification system (such as those in Canada or Mexico) can use those programs’ requirements to confirm origin claims.

For an imported product covered under the law, the importer must ensure that records provide clear product tracking from the United States’ port of entry to the country or countries of origin. These records must be available for one year from the transaction date.

Cost remains a controversial area. When the proposed rule was first published (Oct. 30, 2003) USDA estimated the recordkeeping burden at $124 million for the first year due to program development and operation. The cost was estimated at $458 million for program maintenance and operation in subsequent years. Today, under the interim final rule, USDA’s first-year estimate is $126 million and $499 million for subsequent years. The higher costs are due to increased labor, as well as expanding the program to more commodities.

Specific to sectors within the product chain, USDA estimates the total first-year implementation costs for all firms involved in the program at $2.5 billion. Costs per firm are estimated at $376 for producers, $53,948 for intermediaries (such as processors) and $235,551 for retailers. USDA estimated the cost to the U.S. economy in terms of higher food prices and reduced food production in the program’s 10th year at $211.9 million.

To meet the Sept. 30 implementation date and to provide industries with comment opportunities prior to issuing a final rule, USDA published an interim rule in the Aug. 1 Federal Register. To view a copy, click here

The American Meat Institute has rolled out a Web site that includes details and explanations of COOL. There’s also a “Frequently Asked Questions” section where you can submit questions, and AMI will provide guidance in response.

Law Provides Four Labeling Categories

The mandatory country-of-origin labeling rule outlines specific criteria for a commodity to carry a “United States country-of-origin” designation. The rule also contains labeling provisions for commodities of foreign origin, meat products from multiple origins, ground meat products and commingled commodities.

Here’s an example involving U.S. and Canadian products or animals: Pork, beef, lamb, goat and chicken products that are muscle cuts fall into one of four categories.

1. Product of the United States

  • Exclusively from animals born, raised and slaughtered in the United States.

2. Multiple Countries of Origin

  • Product of the United States or Canada
  • Allows flexibility for the slaughter plant to have animals born, raised and slaughtered in the United States and/or animals born in Canada, raised in the United States and slaughtered in the United States.

3. Imported for Immediate Slaughter

  • Product of Canada and the United States
  • Product from animals that are imported from Canada for immediate slaughter in the United States.

4. Covered Commodity that is Foreign Country of Origin

  • Product of Canada
  • Muscle cuts of meat from animals that are slaughtered in a foreign country and imported to the United States.