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Labels Lack Food’s Origin Despite Law

02 July 2007

US - In every American supermarket, labels tell shoppers where their seafood came from. But there are no such labels for meat, produce or nuts.

The meat counter at a Whole Foods in New York City. Opponents of a federal mandate say grocers should voluntarily label imported meat.

Behind the contradiction is a lesson in political power in Washington, where lobbyists and members of Congress have managed to hold off the enforcement of a five-year-old law that required country-of-origin labeling on meat and produce as well as fish.

Now, with Democrats in control of Congress and mounting questions about the safety of food imported from China, proponents of the labeling law say they believe that they finally have momentum on their side.

After all, they say, at a time when consumers are ever more concerned about where their food is coming from, why not just tell them on the package?

“No. 1, there’s a basic consumer right to know,” said Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union, an advocacy group that publishes Consumer Reports magazine and supports the labeling law. “People are more and more concerned about the food they eat.”

But the labeling law has formidable foes, including the meat lobby, which so far has outmaneuvered its opponents on Capitol Hill. In the years since the labeling law was enacted as part of the 2002 Farm Bill, its opponents have successfully blocked all but seafood labeling from taking effect.

Opponents of the law say they believe that it is too onerous and expensive and is simply a way for American farmers and ranchers to block cheaper foreign competitors.

Besides, they contend, retailers can voluntarily offer country-of-origin labels, as they do with hormone-free milk and organic foods.

“No one was prohibited from putting labels on products,” said former Representative Henry Bonilla, Republican of Texas, who as head of the appropriations subcommittee on agriculture pushed through delays of mandatory origin labeling. “If consumers wanted this, they could have demanded it.”

Critics say meatpackers simply do not want consumers to know that an increasing amount of hamburger meat and produce is being imported.

The fate of the country-of-origin labeling, known as COOL for short, will likely be resolved in the coming months as Congress rewrites farm policy.

The battle over the labeling law comes at a time when American farmers are facing increasing competition from all corners of the world: soybeans from Brazil, wheat from Ukraine and apples from China, to name a few. American consumers, meanwhile, are eating more food grown and processed overseas.

During the last decade, the value of imported food has roughly doubled, to $65.3 billion in 2006.

The meat lobby has historically been a powerful and efficient operation in Washington, with deep ties to Capitol Hill and the Department of Agriculture. Along with the grocery industry, the meat lobby has waged an effective campaign to stymie efforts to carry out the law.

The law required country-of-origin labeling on beef, pork, lamb, fresh fruits and vegetables, seafood and peanuts. To date, the debate has mainly been driven by the meat industry, with the produce and peanut industries playing a much quieter role.

The biggest supporters of the labeling law in Congress come from Great Plains states where ranchers face stiff competition from Canada.

A central reason the seafood labeling was pushed through in 2005 was Senator Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, who was chairman of the powerful Senate Committee on Appropriations at the time. He went to bat for Alaska fishermen, who benefited from a provision in the law that fish and shellfish include not only country of origin but whether it was farm-raised or caught in the wild.

Today, both sides of the debate over origin labeling contend that the seafood labels support their arguments.

For instance, in March, the Food Marketing Institute, a trade organization, said seafood labeling had cost 10 times more than original estimates and failed to increase sales of American seafood.

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Source: The New York Times

For our previous news on Country Of Origin Labelling, click here.



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