COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Whether it's for health and nutrition, safety, sustainability or some other reason, consumers' food-purchasing choices continue to widen. In the mix with local foods, organics and genetically modified products now comes country of origin labeling (COOL).
On Sept. 30, mandatory country of origin labeling became effective for meat and perishable agricultural commodities such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Fish and shellfish having been subject to COOL requirements since April 2005.
"Retailers are now required to notify consumers whether the product they are buying is of U.S. origin or from another country," said Ian Sheldon, Ohio State University Andersons Professor of International Trade with the Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics.
Products falling under COOL requirements include beef, lamb, pork, chicken, goat, wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish, fresh fruits and vegetables, and some nuts such as peanuts, pecans and macadamia nuts. Under COOL, ingredients in processed food items are not required to be labeled; however, many imported products still must indicate the country of origin of their ingredients under the Tariff Act of 1930.
"For example, frozen peas and carrots are processed foods and in principle are not subject to COOL requirements. However, if those peas and carrots came from another country, then the product has to be labeled," said Sheldon, who holds an appointment with the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.
Apart from giving consumers greater choice in what products they buy, Sheldon doesn't see much benefit with the implementation of COOL.
"I'm not sure what the economic logic is. I just don't see what the specific risks are for such a law to be required. If it's about safety, then perhaps we should be spending money on food safety. Do we want to leave it to consumers to determine if a product is safe based on a label?" said Sheldon, who also holds an OSU Extension appointment. "Perhaps some U.S. producers see it as a means of protecting themselves from foreign competition. But so many foreign producers, like those from Australia and New Zealand, are already doing a good job of marketing their products based on country of origin."
Sheldon said if anything, COOL might further drive up already high food prices because of the costs retailers must incur to make sure items are labeled. Those costs eventually will trickle down to the average shopper.
"The one thing I don't like about COOL is the across-the-board implementation. That means consumers will be paying higher prices for products whether or not they care which country their food is coming from," said Sheldon. "It has nothing to do with freshness, taste, or quality. The COOL label is simply a characteristic added to a food product that ultimately the consumer will have to pay for. I think it's something that will hurt some consumers in the long run."
Whatever impact, if any, COOL will have on the market, Sheldon said the new law was designed ultimately to give consumers greater food choices based on their preferences.
"There is a segment of the population that obviously won't care about COOL, but there is also a segment of the population that wants it and is willing to pay for it," said Sheldon. "Whether they worry about food safety problems such as E. coli or mad cow disease, or worry about whether their raspberries come from California or Mexico, there will be some demand for products based on country of origin labeling."
For more information on country of origin labeling, log on to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service Web site at http://www.ams.usda.gov.