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Seafood COOL Q & A

WASHINGTON - Despite hopes to the contrary, Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) for seafood will go into effect on Sept. 30 without any further rules published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to a spokeswoman for the McLean, Va.-based National Fisheries Institute.

The nation's leading seafood industry trade association issued a bulletin yesterday alerting its members that while the USDA prepares to release an interim final rule for mandatory COOL and method of production labeling for fish and shellfish, it is likely to change little, if at all, Linda Candler, NFI's v.p. of communications, told Progressive Grocer.

Following are some questions and answers that NFI issued in its member bulletin:

1. When will enforcement of the law begin?

The Interim Final Rule (IFR) announces that USDA will delay active enforcement of the law for one year from the date of publication of the IFR.

2. When enforcement begins, who will enforce the law?

While the USDA will enter into partnerships with states to administer the law, only the USDA will be able to initiate enforcement actions. Any person may file a complaint with the USDA regarding mislabeled product, and USDA may initiate an investigation if reasonable grounds exist for doing so.

3. What fish and shellfish items are covered by the interim final rule?

The law requires all fish and shellfish to be labeled as to country of origin and method of production, unless they are an ingredient in a processed food item. The IFR defines this so-called processed food exemption as fish and shellfish that has undergone a physical or chemical change (e.g. cooking, curing, smoking) and has a character that is different or has been combined with other ingredients (e.g. breading, tomato sauce) except ingredients such as salt or water that simply prepare the product for consumption. The IFR lists as examples of exempt products: canned fish, canned tuna, breaded shrimp, mussels in tomato sauce, salmon fillet topped with stuffing, smoked salmon, products derived from fish block that "have a different character from the fish flesh in the block". (The specifics of the term "character" are not clarified in the IFR.)

4. What are the record-keeping requirements?

The IFR requires everyone in the supply chain to maintain records of the immediate past source and immediate subsequent recipient of labeled products in such a way that identifies the product unique to the transaction by means of a lot number or other unique identifier for one year. Records must be maintained at the retail store as long as the product is on-hand and at retailers' headquarters for one year.

The information provided to the immediate subsequent recipient, including retailers, may be provided on the product itself, on the master-shipping container, or in a document that accompanies the product by means of a lot number or other unique identifier.

The supplier responsible for initiating the country of origin and method of production designation (the importer of record or receiver of US fish) must possess or have access to the records necessary to substantiate the claim.

5. What is the Country of Origin for Imported Products?

The Country of Origin claim for imported fish and shellfish is the country of origin declared to US Customs and Border Control at time of entry into the United States. This country of origin claim must accompany the product to the point of retail sale unless it meets the processed food exemption. For products further processed in the United States, these products must still be labeled consistent with the declaration to Customs (assuming they have not become exempt under the processed food exemption). The term "Processed in the USA" or similar may only be added if the level of processing here in the US is a level of processing deemed by US Customs to constitute a substantial transformation of the product.

6. What is the Country of Origin of US fish and shellfish processed overseas?

Such products must be labeled as "Product of Country X" unless they meet the processed food exemption. The term "Harvested in the US" or similar may only be added if a record-keeping trail is maintained to verify such a claim.

7. What about products blended from multiple countries of origin?

Such products must be labeled as to countries of origin in alphabetical order or in order of predominance by weight.

8. Are there specific marking requirements?

No. The information may be displayed in any manner that is clear to the consumer and does not cover other required information with the exception that the FDA does not want to see country of origin or method of production claims in the product name or in the ingredients list. A check box system is also acceptable.

For method of production information, "wild", wild-caught", "farm-raised" and "farmed" are all acceptable. Terms such as "ocean caught", "caught at sea", "line caught", "cultivated", "cultured", or "aquacultured" are NOT acceptable.
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