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Op-Ed: Should Congress Require the U.S. Food Industry to List the Country of Origin of Products?

Web Note - May 29, 2007: This Op Ed also ran in several other papers, including the Modesto Sunday Bee (CA), Charleston Sunday Gazette (WV) , San Diego Union (CA), Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, AZ),  the Billings Gazette (MT), the Duluth News Tribune (MN), the Daily Herald (Provo, UT),  the Miami Herald (FL), the Anniston Sunday Star (AL), the Fresno Sunday Bee (CA), the Pueblo Chieftain-Star Journal (CO), the Rochester Post-Bulletin (MN), and the Bloomington Sunday Pantagraph (IL).

America needs to know where its meals come from

U.S. consumers want and need country of origin labels on food. Recent food poisoning scandals, linked to contaminated pet, pork and poultry food ingredients from China, along with tainted produce and seafood, have taken away many Americans' appetites for cheap imported foods.

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 almost 50 percent under the Bush administration - and require mandatory country of origin labels for foods.

With the Centers for Disease Control 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 a important issue for many consumers.

Compounding growing food safety concerns, the public is becoming aware of the fact that greenhouse gas pollution, in large part derived from coal plants, automobiles, trucks, energy-intensive industrial agriculture and long-distance food transport are disrupting our climate with likely dire consequences, some of which are already becoming evident.

The average food item in a U.S. supermarket today has traveled between 1,500 to 3,500 miles from farm to store, with sales of imported food doubling over the past decade.

Meanwhile thousands of North American family farmers are being forced off the land every month, mainly because giant retailers and manufacturers find it more lucrative to buy food products from overseas producers like China, where environmental and labor exploitation are the norm, and where farmers are lucky to make a dollar a day.

Given all of these considerations, it's no wonder that millions of Americans are turning to safer, less energy-intensive, local and U.S.-produced organic food for their families, and now for their pets as well.

Europe and most other industrialized nations require mandatory country of origin labels on food. Reacting to the longstanding 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.

As a result, Americans continue to buy billions of dollars of imported foods every year - in most cases without even knowing it. In order to safeguard public health and environmental sustainability, and to save North American family farms, we need to restore our basic right to know where our food is coming from.

To do this we must be willing to raise our voices, both in the marketplace and in the political arena. We must demand that Congress respect the desires of the nation's consumers and require country of origin labels for both conventional and organic foods.

At the same time we need to vote with our pocketbooks for health and sustainability by patronizing those food companies, natural food stores, co-ops, independent grocers and restaurants that are already voluntarily labeling food products according to their country of origin.

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Labeling measures will cause price hikes but still won't increase safety

Contaminated Chinese wheat gluten, recently identified in America's pet food, has spurred calls in Congress for increased food-safety regulations. Yet the Senate already is considering a mandatory country-of-origin labeling law, which will add costs but won't increase safety.

Some think our safety depends on labeling laws that reveal which countries grow every ingredient in foods that shows up on supermarket shelves or restaurant menus, but this is untrue. Country-of-origin labeling confuses protection with protectionism.

The Food and Drug Administration regulates $417 billion in domestic foods and $49 billion in imports. There have been health incidents with both kinds. The mad-cow disease outbreak in 2003 and the spinach E. coli outbreak last year are examples of foreign and home-grown food safety failures.

The new labeling proposal intends to expedite retail labeling of beef, lamb, pork, fish, peanuts and fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables. Two exceptions are processed foods that have been "transformed" or processed upon entering the United States because it is difficult to separate their ingredients, and restaurants and cafeterias for which labeling food would be extremely costly.

Supporters of mandatory labeling invoke disease outbreaks or even terrorist attacks, sparking calls for big-government action. Unfortunately, labeling doesn't actually help food-safety agencies to locate the source of contamination, according to the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Investigating such outbreaks is a complicated and timely effort, with or without labels. If a dangerous product makes it to the shelf, the FDA has already failed.

Agri-marketing is an innovative business where suppliers change frequently. The Food Marketing Institute estimates that both suppliers and retailers would routinely have to update their labels when the labeling proposal goes into effect. This requires labor, paperwork and higher prices for consumers.

FMI found that when a retailer tested country-of-origin labeling with fruit salad, packages had to be hand-labeled since fruit comes from varying locations. The cost for each store was more than $150,000 a year, averaging $4.8 billion per year for 31,000 retailers.

Labels showing that a cow that was "Born in Mexico, raised in Canada, and slaughtered in the U.S." tell the consumer nothing about food safety. Neither is there sufficient evidence that labels determine our decisions to purchase food. If they did, then consumers would pay extra for grocers to provide them.

More serious is the possibility that imported food is shifted into restaurants, which then become subject to the labeling law. Restaurants would certainly go out of business trying to label their menus.

Furthermore, it's not fair for the U.S. government to penalize all Chinese food companies by requiring labels. Different Chinese food companies compete with one another. If one U.S. software firm sold a product in China that caused computers to crash, it would not help Chinese computer users if their government mandated country-of-origin labels for all U.S. software.

What counts is safety inspection, not labels. Companies have taken it upon themselves to guarantee quality because the government has proved unreliable.

Other recent ideas include $13 million for FDA food safety, and the Safe Food Act, which would combine 15 food regulating agencies into one large bureaucracy, supposedly to improve the effectiveness of government inspections.

When unburdened by government restrictions, food companies will devise their own methods of ensuring safe products in response to consumer demand, not Capitol Hill. Free-market methods will prove less costly and more effective than protectionist government mandates.

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Ronnie Cummins is the national director of Organic Consumers Association. Readers may write him at OCA, 6771 South Silver Hill Drive, Finland, Minn. 55603; Web site www.OrganicConsumers.com. For more information about OCA, please go to www.organicconsumers.org/aboutus.cfm. © 2007, Organic Consumers Association

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Diana Ernst is a public policy fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. Readers may write to her at PRI, 755 Sansome Street, Suite 450, San Francisco, Calif. 94111; e-mail: dernst@pacificresearch.org; Web site: www.pacificresearch.org. For information about PRI's funding, please go to www.pacificresearch.org/outreach/index.html or www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?titlePacific-Research-InstituteFunding. © 2007, Pacific Research Institute