COOL Kicks In; PMA Files Interim Rule Comments

After years of pressure from U.S. agricultural groups, mandatory country of origin labeling (COOL) implementation started yesterday, to require nearly all fresh meat and produce be labeled according to its country of origin.

With the start of the labeling program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it will now begin working with retailers on "informed compliance." From there, the agency is expected to make adjustments to its COOL rules after reviewing public comments in roughly six months, after which time full implementation will get under way.

The Produce Marketing Association (PMA) was among the industry trade groups that submitted comments and offered suggestions to the USDA on how to address issues that have been identified thus far by industry members attempting to apply the interim rules.

Specifically, PMA advised USDA to refine the definition of a processed product to include any fresh-cut produce item, even those not combined with another substantive food item or other covered commodity.

The Newark, Del.-based trade group also recommended that USDA designate that items with distinct varietal names within a generic category of products be deemed different products and excluded when two or more are combined.

PMA further urged the agency to "state specifically that retailers need not maintain any new or additional records documenting origin for those products that are pre-labeled on the product itself or on the box/container (when the box/container is visible to consumers, such as when it is used as part of a retail display)."

"We asked USDA to make this strong clarification because during these economic times of multiple inflationary pressures we absolutely must reduce unnecessary expenses throughout the supply chain," said PMA's v.p. of government relations Kathy Means. "We need to be sure retailers are confident that no additional records are needed in these instances."

Given the short amount of time between the release of the interim final rule and its effective date, Means said PMA requested that companies subject to the rule be given a year from the effective date to use up existing packaging inventories, provided packaging inventories were acquired prior to the rule's effective date.

"Our comments let them know what things need clarifying or fixing the most," said Means, adding that overall, "they've done an admirable job of aligning the consumer's need for information with the practical realities of industry operations. In particular, we applaud the agency's decision to allow state and regional designations for perishable agricultural commodities."

Means said PMA will remain "actively engaged" beyond the Sept. 30 implementation date to address members' needs to fully understand COOL, and to advocate on behalf of the produce industry "to keep our industry's needs top of regulators' minds as they move forward from implementation to enforcement."
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