Maybe you’ve done this: plucked a Washington State apple from among bins shipped in from all over the globe. Or, if you’re like me, you choose locally-made cheeses because they’re fresh, in addition to being delicious. But have you ever pulled a bag of frozen scallops from the grocer’s freezer, read “Product of XXXXX” on the label and quickly shoved it back onto the frosty shelf? I admit, I have.
Why? Let’s say that a year’s worth of news stories has made me gun shy. Last summer it was the tainted pet food; then it was reports about toys covered with lead paint. And now we’re learning more about the infant deaths and the up to 50,000 Chinese babies made ill by melamine-tainted milk formula.
To be honest, I was glad the scallops sported a label that made it possible for me to weigh the risks and make my choice. Unfortunately, not all foods carry this type of information. And that’s where COOL – Country of Origin Labeling – comes in. The COOL law, which was included in both the 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills, is scheduled to go into effect September 30. Unfortunately, this law contains an omission that we, as consumers, can ask the USDA to correct if we act now.
An August 1, 2008 publication of the Federal Register details the final rule which mandates retailers to notify customers of the country of origin for a long list of foods: meats, fish and shellfish, some nuts, and perishable agricultural commodities (including fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables). This is good.
But the shine begins to fade on the very first page of the rule where it reads: “Food service establishments are specifically exempted as are covered commodities that are ingredients in a processed food item.”
So what are “covered commodities,” and what’s considered “processed food?” The 47-page rule goes into great detail on both terms, but, in a nutshell, covered commodities means muscle cuts and ground beef, lamb, pork, chicken and goat, farm-raised and wild fish and shellfish, perishable agricultural commodities, peanuts, pecans, ginseng, and macadamia nuts.
The short definition of processed food includes food when action has been taken to change the character of the food through cooking (boiling, frying, broiling, grilling, steaming, baking, roasting), curing (with salt, sugar, drying), smoking (hot or cold), and restructuring (emulsifying and extruding). An item is also considered “processed” when a covered commodity has been combined with at least one other covered commodity or “other substantive food component.”
I’ve got to admit; reading the law is helpful. It goes on to give examples of the types of processed foods that would be exempted from COOL: meatballs, breaded veal cutlets, salad mix that contains lettuce and a dressing packet, and a fruit cup, to name a few.
So if on some future shopping trip, I reach for a packet of frozen scallops in a thick, creamy sauce, this new legislation may not help me. The ingredients I don’t want to buy may still be in there. I just won’t have any way of knowing.
There are many, many arguments for more disclosure on food labels – for information about irradiation and genetically-modified ingredients, for instance. But that’s fodder for another time.
Right now, the COOL rule is about to hit our supermarkets. If you want COOL to extend to the frozen, canned, bagged and dried processed foods you bring into your home every week, you’ve got to let the USDA know by September 30.
Sylvia Burgos is a public relations professional who lives in Wisconsin farm country, commutes into St. Paul. She podcasts and blogs about politics and food at Artisand Bread, Cheese and Wine. You can reach Sylvia Burgos at firstname.lastname@example.org