At a time when patriotism is vogue, you might assume putting the words “Made in the U.S.A.” on a package of top sirloins in your local grocery store would spur anything but controversy. But you'd be wrong.

The decades-old, country-of-origin labeling (COOL) debate isn't just about what the label should say or what qualifies to get the label. But should the label be voluntary or mandatory, how much will it cost and who will pay for it?

Some of those questions were answered in a 2002 farm bill provision that makes COOL mandatory for muscle cuts of beef and ground beef after a two-year voluntary program. (See “8 COOL Answers” at right.)

The provision, which also applies to several other commodities, requires retailers to inform consumers of a product's country of origin at the final point of sale. Foodservice establishments like restaurants are exempted.

Other questions about COOL are in the process of being answered — either through public comments or by Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, who is expected to issue final guidelines for the voluntary COOL by Sept. 30. She's also required to announce regulations for the mandatory labeling by Sept. 30, 2004.

Unanswered Questions

But still, other questions about COOL remain unanswered.

  • How will consumers respond to it?

    As far as beef products go, an answer is in the works. The Colorado Department of Agriculture, in cooperation with Colorado State University, recently received a $24,030 USDA grant to study consumer response to COOL of beef products.

    For perspective, an independent survey commissioned by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), a supermarket trade organization, in 1999 indicated that about one-third of consumers prefer to have food labeled with a specific country of origin. Another third would just like domestic foods to be labeled “Grown in the U.S.A.” And the final third has no concern about the safety of imported foods.

    Still, FMI says American shoppers aren't asking for COOL. Each year FMI asks supermarket shoppers to volunteer suggestions for “improving your primary supermarket,” and COOL has never been requested in more than 20 years of asking this open-ended question.

  • Will it be cumbersome to implement?

    FMI dubs mandatory labeling “an organizational and administrative nightmare.” It and other organizations opposed to mandatory COOL hope the two years of voluntary labeling will highlight the difficulties of implementing such a system.

    In addition, a new Mississippi state law may shed some light on the logistics of labeling and segregating commodities by country of origin.

    The law mandates COOL on unprocessed meat products, whether fresh or frozen, sold in retail stores after Jan. 1, 2003. Meat must be designated as “Imported,” “American” or “Blend” of imported and American. At this point, retail stores in Mississippi have no system in place to segregate the product.

  • How much will it really cost?

    Some meat industry organizations that are against mandatory COOL say it will be costly and difficult to implement and will make meat more expensive for consumers.

    According to the American Meat Institute (AMI), a meat and poultry trade association, the mandate will mean nearly $1 billion in additional annual costs to the livestock, red meat and supermarket industries. That figure doesn't include an additional $60 million USDA will spend in annual oversight costs and the $56 million the Food and Drug Administration will need to enforce the mandate, AMI says.

    “The cumulative effect will be to drive value out of the meat production chain, capital investment out of rural communities and some smaller operations out of business,” says J. Patrick Boyle, president and CEO of AMI.

  • How will it affect trade relationships?

    Some of those against mandatory COOL also say they fear serious repercussions on foreign trade.

“U.S. trading partners could view labeling as a trade barrier and retaliate by imposing barriers against imports of U.S. products into their own countries,” says FMI.

Boyle echoes that concern, pointing to the value of U.S. beef exports to Mexico and Canada, which totaled more than $774 million last year.

“Disruptions in these markets could be disastrous for U.S. meat companies and livestock producers,” he says.

8 COOL Answers

  1. What commodities require a label?

    • muscle cuts of beef, lamb and pork

    • ground beef, ground lamb and ground pork

    • farm-raised and wild fish and shellfish

    • perishable agricultural commodities (fresh fruits and vegetables as defined by the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act)

    • peanuts

  2. Of the meat mentioned above, what qualifies for the label? meat exclusively from an animal that is born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S.

  3. What must the label include? the name of the country from which the product originated

  4. Besides the traditional definition of a “label,” what else qualifies as a label?

    • stamps

    • marks

    • placards

    • other clear and visible signs

  5. Where can the label appear?

    • on the commodity

    • on a package

    • on a display

    • on a holding unit containing the commodity

    • or on a bin containing the commodity

  6. Who is required to supply the country-of-origin information to the retailer? participants in the marketing chain

  7. What happens to retailers who willfully don't comply? USDA may fine them up to $10,000.

  8. Can the secretary of agriculture use a mandatory identification system to verify the country of origin? No, but she can use certification programs already in existence as a model.

To review the full text of the 2002 farm bill's country-of-origin labeling provisions, visit USDA's Web site www.ams.usda.gov/COOL.