Independent to Feds: Nix COOL

The owner of Matherne's Associated Supermarket, a four-store independent, took advantage last week of an opportunity to express his misgivings about the federal country-of-origin labeling law to Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, who was visiting one of his stores. Leavitt visited the Matherne store on Bluebonnet Boulevard, as well as the distribution center

BATON ROUGE, La. — The owner of Matherne's Associated Supermarket, a four-store independent here, took advantage last week of an opportunity to express his misgivings about the federal country-of-origin labeling law to Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, who was visiting one of his stores.

Leavitt visited the Matherne store on Bluebonnet Boulevard, as well as the distribution center of Associated Grocers here as part of a review he is compiling on the safety of imported food products for President Bush. The visits were coordinated by the National Grocers Association, Arlington, Va.

“I expressed our concerns about [country-of-origin labeling], that it puts a burden on wholesalers and retailers,” said owner Ernie Matherne. “We wanted him to know we think the burden should be on packagers. He was receptive.”

Matherne emphasized that “I'm all about food safety; I'm just opposed to having to prove where something comes from.”

Matherne showed Leavitt examples of imported food, including crawfish tails imported from China. “He wanted to see that the country of origin labeling was on the package,” said Matherne.

Since last September, federal legislation requires that labels showing a product's country of origin be placed on seafood; a similar requirement for meat, produce and peanuts will go into effect in September 2008. Retailers and wholesalers are subject to stiff penalties if the law is violated.

Leavitt's Baton Rouge visit was one of six the Department of Health and Human Services plans to make to food facilities around the country in connection with the safety of imported foods, according to NGA. On July 18, Bush asked Leavitt to chair a working group focused on promoting the safety of imported products.

“Recent events have understandably focused Americans on the issue of safety of our food,” said Tom Zaucha, president and chief executive officer, NGA, in a statement. “Continually improving our import safeguards to meet the changing demands of a global economy is of the utmost importance.”

Leavitt and his group met with J.H. “Jay” Campbell, president and CEO of Associated Grocers and a member of NGA's board, as well as other Associated Grocers executives.

The group then visited Matherne's Associated Super Market, an NGA member that is supplied by Associated Grocers. The task force walked through the store and spoke with department managers and customers.

Leavitt was quoted in the Baton Rouge Advocate as saying, “You can't inspect your way to food safety. You have to build the safety and the quality in at the grower level.”