Consumers are accustomed to seeing labels bearing the phrase "Made in China" on everyday household goods ranging from apparel and toys to electronics. Yet, for the most highly consumable products, foods and beverages, country-of-origin labeling (COOL) is a relatively new phenomenon, one that has not been without controversy.
COOL has been hotly contested and debated since its inception as part of the 2002 farm bill. Groups opposed to the legislation were able to prevent it from taking effect until this year, when its implementation was mandated by the 2008 farm bill. Commodities covered by the regulation include meat products as well as fruits, vegetables, peanuts, pecans, ginseng and macadamia nuts, and must be labeled at retail to indicate their source or country of origin. If a product is processed, as defined by the regulation the products are exempt from mandatory COOL labeling.
Food retailers, producers and manufacturers opposed to COOL typically cite the burden of record keeping, increased labor costs, liability concerns, adverse effects on trade and no clear indication of consumers’ willingness to pay a premium for food products labeled with country-of-origin labeling. On Sept. 30, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s interim final rule, mandatory COOL will take effect. While the food industry side of the debate is well documented, what do consumers think?
Three-quarters of the consumers asked by The Hartman Group, Inc. agree COOL should be mandatory on packaged foods. Eight per cent of consumers said COOL labeling should not be mandatory.
With food safety one of the more pressing issues facing consumers, COOL labeling may be beneficial for some food manufacturers. It is not the products "Made in America" consumers are worried about. The majority of consumers (73%) believe foods produced in the United States seem safer than imported goods, and 40% of consumers said the American food supply chain is safer than the European supply chain. Consumers are savvy as well; they know many of the fresh foods they consume throughout the year are imported. This is, after all, a global economy.
Whether it is headlines about tainted goods from China, recalls of ground beef or warnings not to eat tomatoes or peppers, concern about food safety has heightened consumer interest in wanting to know the source of the food they consume. With food safety issues constantly at the forefront of consumer consciousness, COOL labeling is important to almost all American consumers.
COOL labeling is (on some level) important to 90% of American consumers. It is "very important" to one-fifth of consumers, while "not at all important" to only 10% of consumers.
Even prior to the influence of widespread scares about melamine and pet food or E. coli-contaminated spinach and ground beef, mainstream consumers are now much more inquisitive about their products and where they come from. The desire for increasing transparency is no longer just found in highly lifestyle-involved consumers — it has become nearly everyone’s concern.
By providing customers with additional information, companies are in a sense democratizing themselves and increasing their potential relevance to consumers, who almost always want to "know more" and in essence, want to see "the real thing."
Laurie Demeritt is president and chief operating officer of The Hartman Group, Inc., a consulting and consumer insights firm specializing in the analysis and interpretation of consumer lifestyles, and how the lifestyles affect the purchase and use today’s products and services in tomorrow’s marketplace.
This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, September 2, 2008, starting on Page 44. Click
Ms. Demeritt may be reached at FBNEditor@sosland.com.