andrew schneider investigates

March 18, 2009

It’s the law. Country of origin must be labeled on many food items but thousands still slip through the government net

Filed under: FDA,Food Safety,Seafood,USDA — Andrew Schneider @ 09:29

There was a time when imported food was coveted, a way to impress your neighbors, friends and colleagues with prosciutto from Italy, sea conchs from Chile, stinky cheese from Denmark, eggplant preserve from Greece, snails from France, and the list went on. 

However, now that a good hunk of our food comes from abroad two things have happened. First, the novelty has worn off, with even the most exotic products available at the corner store. But second, some of that intriguing “foreign” food has been bad. Not a lot, but enough to get the attention of shoppers. 

Many consumers don’t even want to buy rice from China, but we can’t blame all the lack of attention to food safety to overseas suppliers. salmon-with-cool-tags

It has been months since the first reports of salmonella poisoning from Georgia peanuts surfaced, and again today I received emails from the FDA warning me of nine additional peanut products to avoid. 

As of Monday, and at long last, the USDA has given food shoppers what they think they want – a country of origin or COOL label on many grocery store products.

The new detailed label is supposed to be affixed to farm-raised shellfish and fish, most poultry, beef, lamb, pork and goat, and almost all perishable fruits, vegetables and nuts.

But as I’ve warned before, the program that will cost between $60 million and $100 million a year to implement, has enormous loopholes which exclude mandatory labeling on thousands of processed foods and mixtures.

For example, mix carrots from Chile with peas from Honduras, and the country of origin need not be revealed. The same applies to chicken or meat that’s breaded, marinated or processed in any way.

The labeling is designed to give consumers more information on where the food they buy comes from, but the government stresses that the new labels do not ensure the quality or safety of the food to which they’re attached. 

However, if the FDA if recalling tomatoes from Mexico or peppers from Guatemala or lettuce from Brazil, the labels would give careful shoppers more information on what to avoid.

Country-of-origin labeling is not new.

Karen Nachay of Food Technology magazine says that almost 80 years ago, the Tariff Act of 1930 required that all manufactured goods imported into the United States list the country of origin.

Getting this labeling law implemented is a complex and sometimes ugly story but Karen’s article does an outstanding job of giving the reader a detailed look at how COOL was stalled, delayed and finally passed, and what it really means to both consumers and the food industry. Here is the link to her fine story. I just wish I had it years ago when I was stumbling to understand the issue.

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