WASHINGTON — Details of the final regulation for the mandatory country-of-origin labeling program required by the 2002 and 2008 farm bills were announced by the United States Department of Agriculture Jan. 12. The full text of the final rule will be published in the Jan. 15, 2009 Federal Register. The rule becomes effective on March 16.

Muscle cuts and ground beef, lamb, chicken, goat and pork; wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish; perishable agricultural commodities (specifically fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables); macadamia nuts; pecans; ginseng and peanuts are covered by the rule. However, Items derived from a covered commodity that has undergone a physical or chemical change – including cooking, curing, or smoking – or that has been combined with other covered commodities or other substantive food components are excluded from country-of-origin labeling. Foodservice establishments are also exempt.

USDA iterated that commodities covered under COOL must be labeled at retail to identify its country of origin. Commodities are excluded from mandatory COOL if the commodity is an ingredient in a processed food item. The definition of a processed food item remains unchanged from the Aug. 1, 2008, interim final rule.

Interest groups, including Washington, D.C.-based Food & Water Watch, say the U.S.D.A.’s finalization of the rule is an attempt by the Bush administration to appease disgruntled, trade-challenged countries. Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the group said a loophole was created by broadly defining "processed" foods in the final rule, to the benefit of trading partners in Canada and Mexico.

"This definition exempts from labeling over 60% of pork, the majority of frozen vegetables, an estimated 95% of peanuts, pecans, and macademia nuts and multi-ingredient fresh produce items," said Ms. Hauter.

The final rule outlines the requirements for labeling and commodities and the record-keeping requirements for retailers and suppliers. Penalties of up to $1,000 per violation for retailers and suppliers not complying with the law can be applied.

Specific criteria that must be met for a covered commodity to bear a "United States country-of-origin" declaration are prescribed by the rule. The rule also contains provisions for labeling covered commodities of foreign origin, meat products from multiple origins, ground meat products, as well as commingled covered commodities.

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