Country of origin labels are used on all types of products. The practice of specifying the origin location of an item goes back to ancient history, and today this information is still a factor in trade and commerce. Country of origin meaning in agriculture is especially relevant in modern times.
Also known as COOL or mCOOL, mandatory country-of-origin labeling is part of U.S. law. It determines which agricultural goods and products must be labeled with a place of origin in order to be sold. COOL was originally enacted with the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002.
The requirements applied to beef, pork, and lamb, with the exception of processed meat products. In 2008, the requirements were extended to include poultry, seafood, fresh fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Some of these requirements were later repealed in 2015 as part of an omnibus budget bill and World Trade Organization (WTO) rulings that prohibited country of origin labels on beef and pork.
Today, mCOOL requirements still apply to many agricultural commodities, including raw fruits and vegetables, fish and shellfish, some nuts, and most meats, excluding beef and pork. More recently, some US legislators have sought to reinstate mCOOL requirements for beef in a manner that’s compliant with current WTO rules.
Why Do Country Of Origin Labels Matter?
Country of origin labels matter for reasons that affect trade, geopolitical relationships, marketing, and other economic trends. These include those related to international shipping, duty rates and tariffs, admissibility, and other factors that depend on country of origin specifications.
At the point of sale, this labeling can have a notable impact on consumer decisions because of connotations regarding a place of origin. Proponents of this type of labeling will often argue that it’s the shopper’s right to know the origin of a product in order to make more informed decisions of where their money goes.
Opponents argue that preconceptions of broader national characteristics can amount to discrimination and perpetuation of stereotypes that may not reflect product quality or value and only serve to strengthen nationality biases. Studies have shown that consumers generally prefer to purchase products that are produced in their own country.
These effects are pertinent to current COOL restrictions and efforts to reinstate some origin labeling. Legislators pushing for beef labeling reinstatement want to make U.S. cattle ranching more competitive by indicating whether beef comes from cows that were born, raised, slaughtered, and harvested in the United States.
Larger meat manufacturing companies generally oppose this labeling because of the cost associated with compliance. WTO rulings have also opposed the born, raised, and harvested labeling, arguing that it disadvantages livestock imports from Canada and Mexico and increases costs for meat industry operations across North America and Mexico.
How Can True Country Of Origin Be Determined?
For foods that are considered “covered commodities” under current COOL legislation, the country of origin must be clearly labeled in a legible manner and placed in a conspicuous location. There is no standard font, text, placement, or other methods for communicating this information beyond clear legibility and visibility.
Country of origin specifics may be printed directly on the manufacturer’s packaging, but it can also be done by including a tag, label, sticker, placard, etc. as long as it clearly identifies where the product originates.
The name of the country of origin must also be clear. In general, any package abbreviation must “unmistakably indicate the name of the country” of origin. This also applies to relevant terms, such as “grown”, “born”, “raised”, “harvested”, “hatched”, etc.
Depending on the product, methods of production, and current labeling requirements, multiple countries may be listed as the source, for example, “Product of U.S. and Canada”. This usually pertains to meat from livestock that may have been born in one country and/or raised and butchered in another, or products that contain parts from multiple sources, such as ground meat that’s sourced from animals from multiple countries.