Totally unCOOL

The supermarket industry is missing the boat by supporting the repeal of Country Of Origin Labeling.

The customer is always right. Just ask Marshall Field, John Wanamaker, James Cash Penney or any of the other legendary retail titans who built their empires on customer service and fufilling their customers’ needs. So it came as a total shock to me that the Food Marketing Institute came out in support of a World Trade Organization ruling that the U.S. Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) law on fresh meat and seafood was illegal and constitutes a barrier to free trade.

On November 23, FMI issued a press release with the headline “Food Retail Industry Applauds WTO Ruling on COOL.”

“The World Trade Organization (WTO) recognized what the supermarket industry has known all along — that COOL is a protectionist law designed to make it more costly and difficult for retailers to sell imported foods,” FMI said in a statement. “COOL has forced the industry to spend tens of millions of dollars each year on unnecessary regulatory burdens all for little or no benefit to consumers. We fully agree with the conclusion of the panel that the COOL law fails to provide information in a meaningful way.

“This year COOL enforcement has become more burdensome than ever, making it challenging for retailers to carry imported meats, produce and seafood. Although the compliance rate for the program last year was 97%, this year, inspectors are demanding that more redundant records be maintained — at great cost to grocers.

“The COOL law will need to be repealed or rewritten in order for the U.S. to meet its obligation to global trading partners. We look forward to working with Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop an alternative system; one that will provide useful information to consumers and put our nation in compliance with international trade agreements,” the statement concluded.

To me this raises the question, just who is the U.S. supermarket serving? American consumers or an international trade organization? Do retailers ever ask consumers if they would prefer to buy imported or domestic meat and seafood? Every consumer I’ve spoken to tells me that country of origin is of extreme importance. Many, if not most, do not trust food from China. Just look at what happened last month when Consumer Reports released a study showing that many samples of apple juice tested had high levels of arsenic in them. Unfortunately this most American of all-American grocery products is now largely imported from China. Yet you have to read the teeny tiny print on the back of the label to see that.

When I do my Retail Spotlight features just about every retailer proudly shows me how they stock local meat, produce, seafood and artisan breads in their service departments, with some even going so far as to put little paper American flags on domestic seafood. The “buy local” and “reduce carbon footprints” movements continue to gain steam, yet FMI chooses to side with a Geneva-based trade association over the wishes of the vast majority of its customers.

Unfortunately these trade practices are usually one-sided. I understand that Walmart stores in China sell live turtles in their seafood departments. I wonder what would happen if the American Humane Society filed a complaint with the WTO against that practice? Do you think the WTO would tell Chinese consumers they could no longer buy live turtles. I wouldn’t bet on it.

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