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May 20, 2007

It's Time For America To Legislate Mandatory Country Of Origin Labels

[By litbrit]

Yesterday's New York Times brought some gruesome news: the toxic Chinese fake-glycerin (diethylene glycol, also known as antifreeze) that I wrote about earlier this month has turned up in Panama--in toothpaste.

Diethylene glycol, a poisonous ingredient in some antifreeze, has been found in 6,000 tubes of toothpaste in Panama, and customs officials there said yesterday that the product appeared to have originated in China.

“Our preliminary information is that it came from China, but we don’t know that with certainty yet,” said Daniel Delgado Diamante, Panama’s director of customs. “We are still checking all the possible imports to see if there could be other shipments.”

Some of the toothpaste, which arrived several months ago in the free trade zone next to the Panama Canal, was re-exported to the Dominican Republic in seven shipments, customs officials said. A newspaper in Australia reported yesterday that one brand of the toothpaste had been found on supermarket shelves there and had been recalled.

Diethylene glycol is the same poison that the Panamanian government inadvertently mixed into cold medicine last year, killing at least 100 people. Records show that in that episode the poison, falsely labeled as glycerin, a harmless syrup, also originated in China.

There is no evidence that the tainted toothpaste is in the United States, according to American government officials.

There is no evidence that the tainted toothpaste is in the United States.  Nonetheless, after the food adulteration disaster of recent months during which thousands of pets died and many Americans quite rightly began to consider--some for the first time--that their own food might not be as safe to consume as they imagined, this sort of disturbing news causes one to re-think every grocery-store purchase.  And while I am an avid label-reader myself, I'll be the first to agree that we are not all organic chemists accustomed to remembering--and then ferreting out--seventeen-syllable chemical names on labels.   It isn't realistic, or even fair, to expect all consumers to stand there in our grocery and drug store aisles, reading paragraph after paragraph of minuscule type, trying to determine if this toothpaste or that cough syrup might kill our families.  Not only that, it wouldn't matter, in many cases, if we did:  the ingredients may say one thing (i.e. glycerin),  but the contents could contain something else entirely--like poisonous antifreeze.

The FDA has proven ineffective in protecting our food supply, admitting they inspect less than 2% of imported foods and food ingredients.  So, I'm recommending--urgently--that we all pressure our representatives in government to push COOL (Country Of Origin Labeling) legislation into law as quickly as possible.  Let consumers decide if we're willing to trust the product safety policies of countries halfway around the world--countries that  saturate farmed shrimp with dangerous antibiotics and spike their animal feed (and possibly grain meant for human consumption, too) with ground up melamine scrap and prohibit their citizens from accessing the news and information we in the States take for granted.  You know, free market and all.

Unsurprisingly, an overwhelming majority of Americans--82%--support COOL.  And equally unsurprisingly, many of the big players are against it, stating that it would be far too onerous and expensive for them to print a few words or sentences on labels and let us know the national origin(s) of what went into our cereals and sinus medicines:

Although polls indicate that the overwhelming majority – 82 percent – of Americans want to know where our food is coming from, Big Food and Washington bureaucrats have united to deny us this right.

Lobbyists for corporate agribusiness such as the American Farm Bureau; giant food manufacturers such as Cargill, Smithfield and Con-Agra; and supermarket chains have handed over millions of dollars to an industry-indentured Congress to keep us in the dark about the “country of origin” of the hundreds of billions of dollars of foods we buy every year in supermarkets or consume in restaurants.

Shocked by media reports that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspects only 1 percent of all imported food shipments, increasing numbers of health-minded consumers have complained to their elected public officials. They are demanding that the government increase food-safety inspections – which unfortunately have been reduced by nearly 50 percent under the Bush administration – and require mandatory country of origin labels for foods.

With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention admitting that Americans suffer from more than 78 million cases of food poisoning every year, resulting in 5,000 deaths and 200,000 hospitalizations, food safety and lax government regulation have become an important issue for many consumers.

Bear in mind that some of these same American interests who also export to Europe somehow manage to squeeze a few words about their products' origins in between New And Improved! and Now More Chocolate-y Than Ever when labeling goods meant for those destinations, since country-of-origin labels are required by law in EU countries and elsewhere around the world:

Europe and most other industrialized nations require mandatory country of origin labels on food. Reacting to the long-standing concerns of their constituents, reflected in polls indicating that 80 percent of Americans want country of origin food labels, Congress finally incorporated such labels into the 2002 Farm Bill, supposedly to go into effect in September 2004.

Unfortunately, corporate agribusiness and supermarket chains bribed an ethically impaired Congress with millions of dollars in campaign contributions to block implementation of the labels.

It's a matter of greed economics more than anything else--they're afraid that if American consumers find out how many of their purchases contain ingredients from countries with spotty safety records, many if not most of us will start getting uppity, refusing to buy products and foodstuffs that are packed with cheap and potentially dangerous fillers and chemicals, and take our dollars elsewhere, spending them on products that offer what we want, without the rubbish we don't want.  So they bribe lobby our congresspeople (emphasis mine):

Deep pockets influenced Washington as industry lobbyists blocked COOL, with the exception of seafood. Lobbying expenditures by groups that opposed COOL between 2000 and 2004 include American Farm Bureau Federation: $11,840,000, and Wal-Mart: $2,760,000. The Goliaths of Agribusiness thus undercut our right to know the source of our food, despite 82 percent consumer support for the idea. Along with over 200 organizations, the National Family Farm Coalition sent a letter to Congress urging our elected officials to finally implement COOL as of September 2007 and end the backdoor delays. So while my T-shirt tag informs me it was from Bangladesh, darned if I can place the hamburger sizzling on my grill.

I don't mean to sound melodramatic; rather, I'm trying to say all this with the kind of passion and emphasis required to bring about meaningful change: the elections of 2008 offer America unprecedented potential to effect real, positive change for us all--in this as well as many respects.  Regardless of our individual politics, we're all consumers of products that, increasingly, come from sources around the globe.  As such, it's absolutely vital that we use our voices and votes, and do so in numbers large enough to overwhelm the deep-pocketed interests who currently dictate policy.

Tell Congress in no uncertain terms that you, the American consumer and voter, want Country Of Origin Labels (COOL) legislation enacted immediately.  You can contact members of the U.S. Senate here, and the House of Representatives here.

Also at Shakesville.

May 20, 2007 | Permalink


I may be a bit of a wet blanket, but traditionally I've always associated country of origin labeling with protectionism and xenophobia. The last effort I remember was over southeast Asian seafood and was basically a protectionist effort for dying American industries.

Posted by: Mac | May 20, 2007 11:48:56 AM

Mac, how is it protectionist or xenophobic? We already mandate country of origin labels on our bloody clothing. Do you contend we have no right to know where the food, medicines, and other products we put in our bodies come from?


As stated above, 82% of people in this country want country of origin information posted clearly on product labels; the rest of the developed world already gets it, as required by their laws.

Posted by: litbrit | May 20, 2007 12:05:07 PM

I'm going to say that the benefits of full disclosure of origins outweigh any costs. Labels are tools. You can use them to protect your health, you can use them because you like to "buy local," or you can use them to reinforce any bigoted attitudes you might have about nations. It's none of my business what you use that tool for, but I think it's a necessary tool to have.

Posted by: Constantine | May 20, 2007 12:06:35 PM

The link to the Union Tribune article indicates that 82% of the population wishes COOL, but does not give the question asked by the pollster.

Nevertheless, give the people what they want. Doubtless, it will cost the consumer some non-zero amount and it will be used to discriminate against products of the PRC and other developing nations. Let's face it: you're more likely to buy something that says "Product of France" as opposed to "Product of Myanmar" when it comes to food. It will likely force Chinese food exporters to either clean up their acts or intentionally mislabel.

Posted by: Klug | May 20, 2007 12:23:28 PM

dear litbrit...

once again, i would like to thank you for your postings on this topic.
i know you have also written about colony collapse disorder recently.
since this can have a profound impact on our food supply and health (living in a world without fruit and flowers), i feel it is not entirely off-topic and also of great importance.
....i just would like to say that the mid-atlantic region apiculture consortium...
search under "MAARAC colony collapse disorder"
has all of the most recent university research and apiculture information available.
there is a great deal of research being done.
i would like to share what i think i understand, though i am not a scientist.
so far, it appears that the industrialization and transporting of bees, changing their geographical habitat, super feeding them with artificial food, possibly microwave/cellfone towers (not ruled out yet) genetically modified foods with pesticides and other pesticides can be causing the completely compromised immune systems that are being examined in the honeybees.
there is much research so far, and few answers.
one out of four honey bees now has died.
it seems that the insects that generally feed on the deceased colonies do not come near them.
honeybees have more delicate immune systems than other insects.
it may also be that the parasitic mites and fungi that is appearing may possibly not be a cause, but maybe opportunistic, because their immune systems are so compromised.
......scientists and farmers of bee colonies will know at the end of the summer what the potential crop failure and impact may be on our agriculture.
...the considerations could be staggering.
even though there are other pollinators, the consequences of this are unimaginable.
.....every morning, i look at the honeysuckle, morning glories,roses...the incredible gifts that nature has given us....i see every single flower in a new way.
....when we dont care for what we are given, and appreciate our treasure, the day comes when we may not have it anymore.
....i hope we are given another chance.

Posted by: jacqueline | May 20, 2007 12:59:54 PM

While I think it's a good idea to label countries of origin, it seems like a logistical nightmare. I just picked up a loaf of bread sitting on my counter and the ingredients include: whole wheat flour, sunflower seeds, wheat gluten (!), millet, amaranth and even smaller quantities of things like calcium carbonate and soy lecithin. So would each of these things have to have its origin labeled individually? What in the manufacturer buys wheat from Kansas, Brazil, or China at various times, depending on the market?

Posted by: Narc | May 20, 2007 1:01:37 PM

I worked for quite a while as a lawyer for a very, very large family farming business (we're talking hundreds of millions in yearly sales). The issue for them with COOL was two-fold: first, a lot of produce grown overseas is shipped to this country, mixed with local stuff, then processed. Implementing COOl would require tracking and processing produce separately, by country of origin. Second, there is the xenophobia issue. Some people won't eat Mexican asparagus because they don't like Mexicans. Idiotic, but true.

All-in-all, these problems really amount to a pain in the ass, but not much more. I always thought the smart approach would be to require COOL on all produce coming from country's that wasn't grown in accordance with food safety regs. that meet or exceed US standards. That way, country's, like Mexico, would have an incentive to upgrade their food safety requirements. And if countries like Mexico won't act, the individual farmers could step up.

Posted by: Charlie Robb | May 20, 2007 1:06:12 PM

for anyone interested in finding the link,
i provided the wrong initials.
for more information, it is under:
MAAREC - colony collapse disorder
mid atlantic apiculture research and extension consortium.
thank you.

Posted by: jacqueline | May 20, 2007 1:06:42 PM

I'm in favor of COOL. But apparently it's not illegal to import consumables from countries that don't have rigorous, and enforced, food and drug safety laws. How about we make it illegal to do that? (And apply it to animal food as well as human food.)

Posted by: CaseyL | May 20, 2007 1:12:52 PM

Aside from concerns over melamine in wheat and antifreeze in toothpaste, shipping food all over the world is always going to be bad for us. Produce is hybridized for increased toughness with no regard to how it affects nutrition. Fruits and vegetables get coated with waxes and shellacs and then sit, and sit, and sit some more as they are transported all over the world. Meat is frozen, partially or totally thawed, frozen again and then thawed again in the supermarket.

And the more hands that have to touch a food product means there are more chances for accidents and even criminal acts.

Using the agricultural products of other countries, by the way, does not always help the farmers in those countries. The reason our huge food conglomerates have so fervently pursued outsourcing is so that they can avoid the safety and wage laws of the United States, thereby making more profit. This type of investment props up corrupt, authoritarian governments by ensuring that the citizenry is kept busy and poor.

Posted by: Stephen | May 20, 2007 2:06:05 PM

Charlie, I submit that if it's a pain in the ass process that every other developed country in the world requires of companies who wish to sell food products within their borders in order to give their consumers a tool for making choices (as Constantine correctly points out), and companies, including many American ones, manage to comply, it can't be THAT onerous. It's a pain-in-the-ass process that our country should require, too.

If you doubt that we import food or food ingredients of questionable safety, take a look at this FDA list of refused goods, (also linked above), bearing in mind they only inspect a tiny fraction of imports to begin with and that the list only represents refused imports arriving in April '07.

For all you poll semantics nitpickers out there, here are links to a few of the polls (there have been several since 2004).

Lake Research Partners for Food & Water Watch, surveying 1000 adults living in private households in the continental United States from February 28 through March 5, 2007:

“Some people have suggested that Congress should require the food industry to provide information on the country of origin of meat, seafood, and produce sold in grocery stores. Others have suggested that the food industry should be allowed to decide whether they should provide this information. What do you think? Should the industry be required to provide this information, or should the food industry be allowed to decide on their own?”

Strongly – Required 68 percent
Somewhat – Required 13 percent
Combined Required 82 percent

Somewhat – Decide on their own 9 percent
Strongly – Decide on their own 7 percent
Combined Decide on their own 16 percent

Don’t Know 2 percent

Lake Snell Perry Mermin & Associates, surveying 1,004 adults in 2005:

"Do you favor or oppose requiring the meat, seafood, produce and grocery industries to include on food labels the name of the country where the food is grown or produced?"

FAVOR: 85%
Don't know: 4%

Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates, Inc. for the National Farmers Union, surveying a sample of 900 likely voters from across the country in 2004:

"Do you think food should be labeled with country of origin

Yes, it should be labeled with country of origin information: 82%

No, it shouldn't be labeled with country of origin information: 15%

Don't know: 2%

And there are other polls. But regardless of the date or the wording of the questions, an overwhelming majority of Americans want Country Of Origin Labeling.

It seems such a no-brainer to me.

Posted by: litbrit | May 20, 2007 2:28:46 PM

COOL seems more like a placebo to anything to me. For one, it's effect will only come into play after something bad has happened- the only rational reason to not eat something from another country is because of documented cases of something or a general distrust of their production, both of which are only going to be created by us discovering something bad, extremely likely too late.

Furthermore, if there is an actual accident, rather than purposeful flaunting of food safety, would cause large portions of the population to essentially boycott a country that customarily produces perfectly fine food. By putting a label on that, it is easy to forsee people completely forgoing anything from that country, even if there is no rational reason to believe their food is lower or even isn't higher quality than any other.

The last problem is obviously that ingredients from many other countries are routinely put together into secondary products- does each ingredient then have a label? How will that help people when they're confronted with 17 different countries unless they are very well versed as to the dangers of production of that product from that country?

I see mutual inspection agreements and heightened random testing as much more useful than labels. Information is nice, but information without any context or background isn't going to help anyone.

Posted by: Fnor | May 20, 2007 3:34:32 PM

There needs to be some explicit labeling on certain beverages from the United Kingdom. I don't know what the hell they put in that stuff, but my hands are still shaking.

Posted by: Matt | May 20, 2007 3:34:46 PM

(1) The evidence that food from any particular naiton is on average more dangerous than U.S. grown food is nonexistent. The recent peanut butter case and the several salmonella outbreaks in fast food restaurants demonstrate that bad food can happen anywhere. Teh many criticisms of china in these blog posts are irrelevant unless there were some evidence that these practices don't happen in the United States.

(2) Labeling will not make food any less unsafe. It just won't. Just as clothing labels don't actually save U.S. jobs.

The real appeal of "country of origin" labeling is to permit local producers to effectively market to nativists, and of course to racists. This is true of clothing labels also. Not one of my policy goals.

Posted by: arthur | May 20, 2007 3:49:05 PM

"There is no evidence that the tainted toothpaste is in the United States."

Right up there with "There's no evidence that BSE cows are ground up and fed to animals used as meat" on the better-left-unsaid list of statements.

Posted by: ThresherK | May 20, 2007 5:02:30 PM

I'm all for the goal of making sure that food in the U.S. is safe. But is this a really effective way to do so? What makes you think that the average consumer is qualified to judge what countries they should buy their food from? People will simply go for "what sounds safe", and pretty soon we'll start seeing marketing campaigns for "genuine Turkmenistan beef" and so on. Advertising will replace regulatory judgement. The biggest real use for this program is nativism.

Posted by: Dan Miller | May 20, 2007 5:08:32 PM

The biggest real use for this program is nativism.

I get creeped out whenever someone tells me that there should not be an obligation to tell me the origin of any particular product or service. This reminds me of the controversy surrounding a law that would have required personnel at call centers to identify their location to customers. There was no real reason to oppose that sort of disclosure unless those who used those call centers had something to hide. The jerks among consumers who will use this information to indulge their nativist attitudes are far, far less of a threat to me than the corporations that will hide this sort of information to cover up their shoddy business practices.

I'm always, always going to support laws in favor of more disclosure.

Posted by: Constantine | May 20, 2007 5:37:29 PM

Honestly, I don't even know how to respond to Fnor and arthur, but damned if I'm going to let such dismissive statements full of disingenuous sound bytes stand unchallenged.

"These recent blog posts" you deem "irrelevant", which I, a working mother of three, have spent many hours of my precious spare (ha!) time researching and writing, are not simply made up or pulled out of thin air.

How dare you, sir.

I have researched farm practices in China, and they really do dump melamine into animal feed--this time, two companies got caught because they went too far and there were immediate, deadly results. No-one really knows how much of it has been sold to us--and consumed by us--over the long term, or what the effects might be over years and decades, on human organs. It is a relatively new health problem that was not on anyone's radar until recently. I have also researched water treatment in China. Guess what? They frequently use cyanuric acid at treatment plants to prolong the efficacy of all the chlorine they have to dump into the water, which in many cases comes from bodies of water that are unimaginably contaminated--like rural areas where people dump diseased pig carcasses into rivers in order to evade discovery of swine illness and have their farm shut down.

I am not criticizing China, and I never have. I am criticizing the massive, complex system of government and oversight (or lack thereof) under which all this has occurred. I am a trained journalist, and I check and double check my sources. Furthermore, I communicate, on a daily basis, with other writers and bloggers who are concerned about what they feed their children, their animals, and themselves, and who believe (with good reason) that the FDA and the rest of our underfunded, hamstrung federal agencies are incapable of protecting us. What was that statistic again--you know, how much of the imported food coming here that gets inspected? Oh yes, less than 2%. Labels that let us know where something comes from allows us, the consumers, to weigh the evidence (and the track records of the countries of origin) and decide for ourselves.

Of course labeling will not, in and of itself, make food less unsafe, just as the container holding a ball of C4 marked WARNING: CONTAINS EXPLOSIVE does not make the C4 itself any less safe. But it certainly lets people know what is inside, doesn't it?

Further, I disagree that clothing labels don't make a difference. Plenty of consumers seek out Made In The USA labels. The labeling vs. no labeling is not what has affected US jobs one way or the other, though--it's the policies that allow American corporations to set up factories in third-world countries, pay far lower wages, and sell the clothes at lower prices, so US-based companies who don't use child labor and prison labor cannot possibly compete.

I may not be a New York Times writer, but I take what I do write very seriously. If someone wants a source, or a link to further information, I provide it as soon as possible--what MSM reporter, I ask, does that? I am completely independent--I work for no-one, and I get paid nothing for my efforts. You cannot say the same of the lobbyists (Wal-Mart, AFBF, etc.) who want to sink the COOL bill, or the handful of Congressmen doing their bidding.

Who's your employer, by the way?

Sadly, there will always be a certain percentage of the population who are racist and/or xenophobic. In every culture and every nation. What does that have to do with my right, or the right of everyone living in America, to know something as simple as the origin of his food--information every other developed nation affords its citizens by law? Are you saying the entire United Kingdom is racist because they require such labels? What about Sweden? Spain? The rest?

Enough "context" for you?

Posted by: litbrit | May 20, 2007 5:37:43 PM

I guess I shouldn't be surprised to see that the American Farm Bureau is the biggest lobby group against COOL Legislation, even though it would supposedly help (North) American food producers. It just goes to show, I suppose, that the Farm Bureau's agenda is the same as Big Agriculture, not the American farmer.

Posted by: JimC | May 20, 2007 5:43:58 PM

> The real appeal of "country of origin"
> labeling is to permit local producers
> to effectively market to nativists,

It is funny how hard-right economists and free marketeers are always saying things such as "if there were a demand for more-expensive goods produced in the USA a market would develop for one", and when a market develops for goods (particularly food) made in the USA they suddenly turn moralistic about the necessity to avoid "stigmitizing" non-USA goods.

Um, either everything is controlled by markets involving perfect information and fully informed consumers - in which case there can be no objection to country-of-origin labeling laws that provide _more_ information to consumers (perfect information, remember?). Or there is a moral aspect to allowing laborers from other nation-states to sell their goods in the USA regardless of USA-people's desires - in which case there are a whole lot more moral issues that the economists (particularly the hard-right) need to start accounting for.


Posted by: Cranky Observer | May 20, 2007 6:18:39 PM

litbrit: I don't think they were questioning your motives. I think they were criticizing your seeming focus on backwards Chinese food hygiene processes. I think I can safely assume that you're equally interested in increasing the FDA's budget and enforcement teeth to investigate domestic food purity, etc.

What do you think about the multiple sourcing or the "different day/different batch/different country" problem? Processed food, which the EU has less demand for, will be affected disproportionately to fresh produce. How do you fight reputation/reality issues? I imagine that this will cost quite a bit to implement and will bias consumers towards OECD countries and away from the developing world.

Posted by: Klug | May 20, 2007 6:27:48 PM

"Of course labeling will not, in and of itself, make food less unsafe, just as the container holding a ball of C4 marked WARNING: CONTAINS EXPLOSIVE does not make the C4 itself any less safe. But it certainly lets people know what is inside, doesn't it?"

That's sort of my point, though. We know what C4 is. Even if we do not know exactly what it is, we at least know what it does, as a general sense. to stretch things, let's say we didn't know what explosive meant. The label "WARNING: CONTAINS EXPLOSIVE" would be useless to that person.

"Explosive" is a very simple idea, so that is helpful. Warning is also useful, because it connotes danger. My main concern is that there is no corrollary to "explosive" in this discussion: the concepts involved are much more abstract and the data informing those concepts are sparse or nonexistant, except in retrospect. If they ever surface or can be generalized at all. Furthermore, we cannot simply put "warning: made in china" on everything, because that would piss of the chinese government and unneccessarily punish perfectly legitimate and compliant producers.

So, then, what would "Produced in Turkmenistan" tell us? Or "Produced in Georgia?" As far as we know, products from those countries are perfectly safe. There is no "common knowledge" that there are health problems there without more information. The catch-22 of this situation is that if there were more information, the FDA would likely not certify the product. Disinformation would also be a problem; say that one batch of beef from a butchery in Mongolia happened to have some harmful bacteria in it, and some people got sick. Say the FDA even went over and checked and verified it was just that batch. It seems to me that it would be a complete guessing game how the situation would play out, but it seems to me that there would likely be a media circus about it, and a large backlash against Mongolia. In this hypothetical, "Mongolia" has taken on a meaning in common knowledge, but it is incorrect, as the problem (again, hypothetically), was an isolated incident and has since been taken care of.

The corrollary would be if there were a compound (say an isomer) of C4 that had medicinal uses and was perfectly stable. If few people knew about the second C4, but everyone knew about the first, labeling, say, medical supplies with "C4" could cause serious problems: someone who didn't know about the second C4, and who "knew" what C4 stood for, would avoid it because of this knowledge. I don't find this situation helpful at all.

Posted by: Fnor | May 20, 2007 6:54:18 PM

I don't think they were questioning your motives. I think they were criticizing your seeming focus on backwards Chinese food hygiene processes

This doesn't reflect what librit has been writing at all. Intentionally contaminating all-purpose flour with melamine in order to make more money isn't about bad hygiene. Dumping dead pigs in a river in order to hide evidence that would shut one's farm down isn't about hygiene, nor is it something that would only happen in China.

The concern over imported foodstuffs comes from a combination of unknown quality control in the countries of origin coupled with the fact, repeated over and over, that the FDA inspects less than 2% of all food imports. I don't have the number handy, but the FDA, along with the USDA, are able to inspect more domestic food sources, though of course it doesn't help to have budget cuts and a political environment that discourages oversight, to put it delicately.

Constantine gets this exactly right: we should always favor disclosure. Always. There is no inherent right to privacy for corporations or governments. In order to foster innovation, corporations are allowed to keep trade secrets, but that doesn't allow them to poison our food to make a buck.

Good God, people, how in the world can any of this be about xenophobia or racism?

Posted by: Stephen | May 20, 2007 6:58:44 PM

once again, litbrit, thank you providing all of this information. with all of your time constraints, it is not an easy task.
.....i now assume that i really cant judge the safety of many of the things i am eating, the air i am breathing or the water i am drinking.
.....at the very least, we can hope to know the country of origin of ingredients...but a real sense of trust has been violated now in thinking that our food supply is really safe.
......another thought i have is that much of the imported and off-season fruits come from countries that have purchased pesticides that are banned in the united states.
how can we know any of these things? i know many people with children who refuse to buy imported fruits and vegetables for that reason.
...i think people who have gardens are going to start growing more things and doing canning and preserving.
...may the bees come back and thrive.

Posted by: jacqueline | May 20, 2007 7:15:03 PM

Klug, I think I've been clear about the FDA's role in this, certainly over the course of many posts (only a couple of which I've crossposted here, at Ezra's, so that may be the reason for any questions). I am indeed interested in increasing the FDA's budget, or perhaps even establishing one central agency to oversee food safety (including inspections of imports) as opposed to splitting matters up between US customs, the USDA, and the FDA.

As to your questions:

What do you think about the multiple sourcing or the "different day/different batch/different country" problem? Processed food, which the EU has less demand for, will be affected disproportionately to fresh produce.

First, the EU--certainly Great Britain and France, where I've lived and/or traveled and can speak about firsthand--sell a considerable amount of packaged /processed food in their grocery stores, as we do here. They do have requirements and policies not in place in the States. Scandinavian countries do not believe in over-fortifying foods with added vitamins, for example--they contend it is harmful to health; they also seek to ban American high-sugar, artificially-fortified cereals from their shelves (I don't know the status of that particular legislation; I came across it while researching something else and never got back to it). Anyway, back to labels--labeling things with multi-origin ingredients is no different to labeling something that contains an ingredient that might have been sourced at different places, given the time or date, such as "Contains palm and/or coconut oil". Like this: "Country/countries of origin--"This cereal was made in the US and contains wheat gluten from China, raisins from Italy or the US, and sugar from the Dominican Republic". Producers know where they buy their ingredients--they just don't particularly want to have to tell you (and you can see why).

How do you fight reputation/reality issues? I imagine that this will cost quite a bit to implement and will bias consumers towards OECD countries and away from the developing world.

The same way all companies--and individuals, for that matter--must in order to market their products and services: with accurate, verifiable information. This can be via transparent, open inspections by officials and independent parties from countries to whom they wish to export products (no holding up visas for FDA inspectors would be a good start); via PR campaigns to build good faith; via gaining consumer confidence the old-fashioned way (selling a desirable, safe product at a good price and earning the business of repeat customers).

That said, there is little anyone can do to counter racist, nationalist, or xenophobic attitudes. I know people who won't eat at [fill in your favorite ethnic restaurant's nationality] places because they believe their food or practices or culture or religion are "weird", "un-American", "unhealthy", etc. I truly don't think labels will feed into irrational fears that are already full-blown.

But one thing (among many) that country of origin labels will do is inject some sorely-needed accountability where it is presently lacking. If a country wants America to put its products in our food chain and our bodies, it must be able to stand behind those food products, police the companies within its borders, and enforce our safety and quality standards.

Posted by: litbrit | May 20, 2007 7:41:52 PM

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