A COOL new law could change food labeling forever

A COOL new law could change food labeling forever

Since we’re talking about imported products, I thought I’d pass some good news along.

As you know, I kept a close eye this past year on the “mysterious” salmonella scare that was eventually traced to peppers from a farm in—as I suspected—Mexico. You know how I feel about importing produce into the U.S. from countries where most Americans wouldn’t drink the water. But my fear has been that the “global economy” has doomed the U.S. consumer to having to face the dangers of the Third World whether we like it or not.

But after years of bureaucratic wrangling, the federal government has FINALLY passed a law that will help protect U.S. consumers from overseas goods. It’s called the Country-of-Origin Labeling law, or COOL. And if you ask me, it’s very “cool” indeed!

The law requires food retailers to label EVERYTHING with its country of origin—including foods from the U.S. And they mean everything—fresh, frozen, and everything in between. Fish, fowl, meat, and shellfish—be it wild, free-range, or farm-raised. If you can eat it, they have to tell you where it came from.

You might wonder what took so long to get such an important—and logical—law passed. Well, it was money and influence, of course. The COOL law for labeling was passed six years ago, but the powerful meatpacking and grocery store lobbies hounded Congress to delay the Department of Agriculture from putting the law into practice. And Congress being Congress, they of course caved in—the safety of the public be damned.

Overall, I think the COOL law is a very good thing. Knowledge is power, and this law puts an incredible amount of power in the hands of U.S. consumers. Suspicious of peppers from Mexico? Just let the label be your guide. What’s more, this new system could also help us more quickly trace the source of tainted foods in the event of another outbreak.

I do have to admit, though, that my enthusiasm is somewhat tempered by the weak enforcement provisions the USDA has put in place for the new COOL law.

While the law is already in effect, the government will not begin assessing fines for violations of the law until 2009. The fines? A paltry $1,000. The CEO of Tyson wipes his nose with a $1,000 bill. A fine that small isn’t enough to influence these corporate giants to change how they do business.

The USDA put the right law in place, but as always, yanked the teeth right out of it. But at least the framework is in place—now we can tell our representatives in Congress to push for stiffer fines and make this law mean something.