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The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has released its final seafood-oriented Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) regulations, requiring fresh and frozen fish – with some exemptions – to carry labels that specify where they came from, as well as whether they were farm-raised or caught in the wild.

The regulations were required by the 2002 Farm Bill, but not finalized by USDA until almost the last possible moment. Just two weeks ago, it there was only “interim final rules” and it was unknown whether a final rule would be issued in time for the regulations to go into effect. However, strict enforcement of the new regulations will not kick in for a year.

The exemptions include:

If the fish has been chemical altered (like smoked seafood), has been used as an ingredient (as in tuna salad), or has been substantially reshaped (think fishsticks), then the labeling rules don’t apply – if the fish is domestic. However, if the fish is imported, then COOL regulations kick in. Other domestic seafood products that are exempt include canned fish, breaded shrimp, mussels in tomato sauce, salmon filets with stuffing, and smoked salmon.

Ironically, the new COOL regulations don’t apply to stand-alone seafood stores, but only to supermarkets that meet certain criteria in terms of sales. The new rules also don’t apply to restaurants and other foodservice operations.

Responding to the issuance of the final rules, Food Marketing Institute CEO Tim Hammonds said, “Although we are grateful that USDA has taken a number of our industry’s suggestions and simplified the final rule in significant respects, the rule still runs over 200 pages as issued, emphasizing the flaws in the underlying law — excessive paperwork and other bureaucratic measures that do not benefit consumers and only inflate the cost of healthy, popular seafood products.

“We appreciate USDA delaying the effective date for this program for six months,” said Hammonds. “But we have not addressed the lack of need for a mandatory country-of-origin labeling program of any kind. In fact, retailers and wholesalers are prepared to institute a voluntary labeling and marketing program that would benefit consumers and producers at a fraction of the cost. We still remain hopeful that Congress will enact legislation to replace this law with a voluntary program that would inform consumers but not place domestic suppliers at a cost disadvantage to their foreign competitors.”
KC's View:
While we continue to agree that retailers have been handed too much of the responsibility for record keeping, we do think that in the long run, the food industry will find the level of trust these rules will engender will be a positive.