Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has announced that the final rule for the country-of-origin labeling (COOL) program will become effective on March 16 as scheduled. Vilsack also sent a letter to participants encouraging them to follow additional voluntary labeling practices.

The rule was published in the Federal Register on Jan. 15, 2009, but has been under regulatory review by USDA in response to a Jan. 20, 2009 memorandum from President Obama’s chief of staff.

“I strongly support county-of-origin labeling – it’s a critical step toward providing consumers with additional information about the origin of their food,” Vilsack says. “The Department of Agriculture will be closely reviewing industry compliance with the rule and will evaluate the practicality of the suggestions for voluntary action in my letter.”

During the regulatory review process, Vilsack decided that implementing the rule and carefully monitoring compliance by retailers and their suppliers afforded the best way to evaluate the program. This evaluation period will determine if more rules are needed to provide consumers with adequate information.

The COOL regulation covers muscle cuts and pork, ground beef, goat, lamb and chicken; fish, vegetables, peanuts and nuts sold at retail. These commodities must be labeled at retail with the country of origin.

The final rule outlines requirements for labeling covered commodities and the recordkeeping requirements for retailers and suppliers. Specific criteria must be met for a commodity to be labeled as “United States Country of Origin.” Provisions are also made for labeling products of foreign origin.

For complete information on the COOL regulation, go to www.ams.usda.gov/cool.