COOL rules on food labeling now fully in effect

Consumer Reports News: March 16, 2009 04:44 PM

The U.S. Department of Agriculture begins enforcing the final rule on country-of-origin labeling (COOL) today. Under the new rule, grocery stores will have to identify the country of origin for muscle cuts and ground beef (including veal), pork, lamb, goat and chicken; wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish; fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables; peanuts, pecans, macadamia nuts and ginseng.

"I strongly support Country of Origin Labeling—it's a critical step toward providing consumers with additional information about the origin of their food," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Most items in these categories should now have a sticker, or placard, indicating where they came from.  However, there are still a few exceptions, such as mixtures of foods including fruit salad (see Consumer Union's COOL Tool for details).

Today's labeling law caps a series of actions on food safety that took place over the weekend. On Saturday Tom Vilsack banned the slaughter of so-called "downer cows," or cows that have become disabled and unable to walk. In the past, cattle that had passed an inspection before going to slaughter and then became injured could be allowed into the food system if an inspector certified the meat as safe. But abuses of this rule at the Westland/Hallmark beef facility, where cattle too sick to walk were fork-lifted to slaughter without benefit of reinspection, prompted a blanket prohibition on allowing such cattle into the food supply.

In his weekly radio address on Saturday, President Barack Obama took a firm line on food safety. “In the end, food safety is something I take seriously, not just as your president, but as a parent,” he said. Obama is forming a Food Safety Working Group, which will include the secretaries of health and agriculture, to advise him on which laws and regulations need to be changed, to facilitate coordination across federal agencies, and to make certain that laws are enforced.

And, as expected, Obama said he would nominate Dr. Margaret Hamburg, a former New York City health commissioner, to be commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and would also appoint Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, the health commissioner in Baltimore, to become the principal deputy commissioner.

"The FDA faces enormous challenges. This appointment gives FDA the leadership it needs to begin to address the issues," said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union.

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