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Editorial: Farm bill COOL rule aids buyer and seller

The long-delayed mandatory country of origin labeling requirement for meats and other foods took a step closer to reality this week when USDA issued its final regulation. COOL, as the program is known, has been on the agenda for nearly a decade, but got a final push in the 2008 Farm Bill.

A COOL provision was in previous farm bills, but was never implemented because of effective opposition from meat packers, grocers and food processors. The lobbying efforts of those groups translated into inaction or overt opposition to implementation from key congressional committees, which at that time were controlled by Republicans.

The political landscape changed two years ago. The 2008 bill not only resuscitated COOL, but also required USDA put the program in place as soon as possible. USDA, under Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer, is doing just that more quickly than was expected by longtime observers of the COOL debate. Schafer, a former two-term North Dakota governor, hasn't had a lot of time as head of USDA, but quick implementation of consumer-friendly COOL might go down as one of his admirable legacies.

The full text of the COOL rule will be published Thursday in the Federal Register, and the rule will become effective March 16. After that, food retailers will be required to affix country of origin labels to all cuts of meat, ground beef, farm-raised and natural-caught fish, shellfish, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables and certain nuts. Consumers will know at a glance the source of meats and fresh commodities on the shelves of their favorite supermarkets. They can use the labels to make informed decisions about their purchases.

To their credit, food retailers (including those in Fargo-Moorhead) already are labeling many of their products with origin information. The COOL rule formalizes and harmonizes the process.

It's a good rule. Anytime consumers can know more about the food they purchase for their families, it's a winning situation. Both the buyer and seller win because the buyer develops more confidence in the seller's commitment to service. Customers who like what they see on the shelves will return to the store.

Today's consumers are more aware of the quality and efficacy of foods than ever before. They want to know how food is processed and where it comes from. COOL is a consumer tool that, in the long run, can enhance trust between the customer and the food retailer. -- The Forum