COOL RULE TAKES EFFECT FOR SEAFOOD INDUSTRY

WASHINGTON -- For months, retailers and seafood suppliers have been preparing for country-of-origin labeling rules that officially took effect this week.Nevertheless, the requirements were not crystal clear to everyone obligated to follow them. A spokeswoman for the National Fisheries Institute last week told SN her office had been bombarded with calls from retailers with questions about COOL. The

WASHINGTON -- For months, retailers and seafood suppliers have been preparing for country-of-origin labeling rules that officially took effect this week.

Nevertheless, the requirements were not crystal clear to everyone obligated to follow them. A spokeswoman for the National Fisheries Institute last week told SN her office had been bombarded with calls from retailers with questions about COOL. The rule, which went into effect today, requires retailers to inform consumers of the country of origin and method of production of all covered seafood items sold in their stores.

Retailers offered mixed comments on the challenges involved in complying with the rule.

At Sheboygan, Wis.-based Fresh Brands, most -- but not all -- fresh and frozen seafood products at the company's 100 stores are labeled by country of origin, and indicate whether they're wild or farm-raised, said Joe White, director of meat and seafood.

Last fall, stores began including the originating countries and method of production in their seafood advertising. In about 18 months, a new systemwide software program capable of storing more product information will permit Fresh Brands to provide more data on the product labels, White said.

"We're somewhat limited by our current technology to have full compliance at this time," he said. "I feel good about fresh [seafood suppliers' compliance.] They've been in compliance for some time. Frozen seafood suppliers are still working on it. The main species or main volume items, I'm seeing [the labels] appear. We feel like we're in pretty good shape. It's a pain, but we're dealing with it."

Under the rule, seafood items, including fillets, steaks, nuggets and any other flesh of fish or shellfish, must be identified by country of origin, unless the item is considered "processed."

Canned tuna and sardines, shrimp cocktail, smoked salmon and fish sticks are among the processed items not covered under the rule.

Wellesley Hills, Mass.-based Roche Bros. got a head start. Country-of-origin labels began appearing on seafood sold in the Boston-area supermarkets last fall, said Paul McGillivray, vice president of perishables for the 16-store chain.

"I think we're in good shape," McGillivray told SN. "It's not a big issue for us."

Many segments of the food industry have fought hard to do away with mandatory origin labeling. Opponents have argued the rule offers little benefit to consumers, yet imposes huge costs and record-keeping requirements on suppliers and retailers.

Washington-based Food Marketing Institute advised retailers to focus first on getting the information out in the stores, and then worry about the record-keeping requirements, in a recommendation posted on FMI's Web site last month.

Seafood retailers are the first to live with the COOL rule, since the category did not benefit from Congressional action in early 2004 that granted the meat, produce and peanut industries a two-year reprieve in the implementation of the mandatory labeling.