Opinion: Where food comes from

Opinion: Where food comes from

18 April 2008

In order to make informed choices, consumers need labels that list ingredients’ countries of origin.

Trust Trader Joe’s to understand the food anxieties of the middle class. In 2001, the budget-gourmet market banned genetically modified ingredients from its house-brand products. This year, it announced that it would no longer carry single-item products, such as spinach, imported from China.

American consumers can’t be blamed for their wariness of products from China, given the various tainted goods it has exported and the infinitesimal amount of imported food tested by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But why not let shoppers decide for themselves whether to purchase products from China or any other particular nation? For one good reason: In most cases, they have no way of knowing.

You can more easily find out where your socks were knitted than where your food was grown. With the exception of seafood, manufacturers and retailers are under no obligation to label their products with the country of origin. Even though federal legislation in 2002 imposed such requirements on other single-item foods — such as beef or fresh produce — Congress has delayed implementing the rules.

Provisions in the farm bill, now in conference committee, would finally end the delay. The Senate version, which includes poultry, is the stronger of the two. But the bill doesn’t address the more vexing issue of labeling processed, mixed-ingredient foods, which account for about half of the convenience-oriented American diet. A jar of spaghetti sauce saying “Product of U.S.A.” guarantees only that the cooking and canning were done in this country, not where the ingredients were grown. A piece of foreign salmon, with a bit of smoke flavoring added and sealed in a plastic wrapper, escapes the labeling rule. That’s one reason Trader Joe’s China ban involves only single-item products; even retailers generally have no way of knowing where the beans in a frozen burrito came from.

The one legislative effort to give consumers a better deal falls short. H.R. 3610, the food safety bill by Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), would require companies to list the information, but only on their websites. That would work fine if most consumers engaged in import-export research while making out a shopping list. For whatever reasons consumers embrace or shun certain products — to discourage the carbon footprint of global shipping, because they trust a certain country or want to protest the politics of another — they should be able to make informed decisions easily. If there’s room on a product’s label to proclaim its nacho-flavored super-nutrients, surely space can be found for a list of where they were grown and processed.

Source: Los Angeles