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Seafood sellers stuck with a new label?

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There's something fishy about new labeling requirements for seafood sold in the USA.

The rules -- called COOL, for Country of Origin Labeling -- require all seafood at the fish counter to be labeled with the country it came from and whether it's from the wild or farmed.

COOL is scheduled to take effect today, and supermarkets across the country are gearing up to change their signs.

There are just three small problems:

* The Department of Agriculture expects to publish the final rule today so retailers don't know exactly what the requirements are yet.

* Industry gossip has it that the agency doesn't plan to actually enforce the law for the first year, says Linda Candler of the National Fisheries Institute, a seafood industry group.

''The story that's circulating in the industry right now,'' she says, is that the rules either won't be enforced for the first year or will be enforced ''very leniently.''

Is that true? USDA cannot comment on the rule before it is published, spokeswoman Julie Quick says.

* The food industry is lobbying Congress hard to repeal the law sometime in the next year and replace it with a voluntary labeling system.

But whatever happens, the regulation will take effect as scheduled. So the seafood industry has been making best-guess decisions based on an interim rule that was circulated for public comment last year.

Based on that version, labeling is likely to apply only to fish sold in supermarkets. Stand-alone seafood stores are exempt, as are restaurants.

It also doesn't apply to canned or smoked fish, breaded shrimp or the shaped fish paste often sold as imitation crab and labeled as surimi. And it isn't likely to apply to fish used as an ingredient in a dish, such as bouillabaisse.

Fines for mislabeling can go as high as $10,000 for a violation.

Ensuring 'very best value'

The law ''will help consumers receive the very best value for their purchase and help preserve a salty way of life that defines entire communities throughout the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard,'' says a statement by Wild American Shrimp, which promotes U.S.-raised shrimp. The group estimates that 85% of all the shrimp sold in the USA comes from overseas.

The labeling also is crucial in helping to track outbreaks of food-borne illness, says Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who notes that 80% of seafood consumed in the USA comes from overseas.

But retail and wholesale organizations, such as the Fisheries Institute and the Food Marketing Institute, which represents the retail and wholesale food industry, consider the regulations essentially to be mandatory marketing.

''It has nothing to do with food safety,'' Candler says. ''It's going to be a very expensive experiment. The record-keeping requirements are onerous.''

Urvashi Rangan of Consumers Union, a consumer advocacy group and publisher of Consumer Reports, agrees that there's nothing different about the fish but says labeling can be empowering for consumers.

For example, she says, under the new rules a would-be fish buyer would now be able to tell if the salmon they're getting is from a fish farm or the wild.

''So if you have information that it was caught in Alaska, you can actually make some intelligent purchasing decisions if you want to avoid PCB contamination, because the Atlantic waters tend to be pretty ubiquitously contaminated.''

Given the often globe-swimming ways of some fish species, the question of exactly where a given fish comes from is a little complicated.

Under the interim rules, a fish caught on the high seas by a U.S. flag vessel will count as American, while those caught by ships out of other countries will come under those nations' flags.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.


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