COOL—a food safety issue? June 2017

Is Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) a food safety issue?  During the debate on COOL, there was a lot of back and forth between proponents and opponents about various aspects of the concept.  Opponents of COOL argued that labeling a products origin was not a substitute for a products safety or wholesomeness.  The argument goes something like this.  U.S. food safety is determined through a series of processes that reviews a foreign country’s safety inspection system and if it is equivalent to a U.S. inspection, then the product is assumed to be as safe as a U.S. food product.

By-and-large, American consumers trust their food supply.  When a person walks into a grocery store, you don’t see them with a worried look on their face.  If you watch them they don’t generally spend a lot of time picking up one product and comparing it to another product except to look at the price, which seems to be a fairly strong deciding factor.  Weekly newspaper ads always try to focus people’s attention on the prices.  You don’t see them say “buy our meat or potatoes or vegetables because they are safe.”   Of course we know that even our safety system, just like any system, can let an unsafe product through.  That’s what’s happened in the past with food recalls and stories of people getting sick from a food.  But again, for the most part, consumers seem to trust our system to adequately protect them from products or preparation systems that would allow an unsafe product to be sold.

Proponents of COOL on the other hand have argued that an origin label can in fact be a safety label.  The argument goes something like this.  Sure you can have a review of a country’s food safety system by U.S. officials, but do we really trust that system to be equivalent to the U.S. system?

Recent headlines about meat inspection officials in Brazil have brought this argument into focus.  People who argue for COOL point to those headlines and say “see, their system allows for officials to pass unsafe beef through the system.”  While an allegation does not a conviction make, the whole process seems to highlight the differences between those for COOL and those against COOL.

At the heart of much of the concern, especially in the beef industry, is the feeling that the system can’t be trusted in some of those countries.  U.S. inspectors can examine the systems foreign countries have in place, but that examination can’t address the issue of what happens if, as is alleged in Brazil, inspection officials are paid to look the other way.  It is here that people who have been advocating for COOL see that label as a food safety issue.

Many countries in the world have documents which provide for the protection of human rights.  Many of those countries also have some of the worst human rights records and the systems that are in place ignore those good sounding documents without a thought.

The same can be true of countries who profess to have an equivalent food inspection system.  You can have all the good sounding words on paper you want, but that still doesn’t get you a safe inspection system that people from other countries can rely on to protect them the same way their own system protects them.

Until we figure out how to account for a country’s culture, arguments that COOL is a food safety issue will make sense.

By Ken Hamilton, WyFB Executive Vice President

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