New labels to say where in the world your food comes from

Starting tomorrow, consumers will be learning a lot more about the frozen ground beef, pork tenderloin, fresh tomatoes and raspberries that they put in their grocery carts.

That's the day that the Country of Origin Labeling Law goes into effect, which requires that labels for meat, poultry and produce clearly state what country they've come from.

Specifically, the law covers ground and whole cuts of beef, lamb, pork, chicken and goat meat; farm-raised fish and shellfish, wild fish and shellfish; fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables; peanuts, pecans, ginseng and macadamia nuts. Country of origin labels (as well as labels indicating whether the fish was "farmed" or "wild") have been required for fish and shellfish since 2005.

While the new law, part of the Farm Bill, is technically a marketing provision designed to give U.S. products a leg up in the marketplace, advocates say it will improve overall food safety, especially after a spate of widespread food contaminations over the last two years.

Opponents of the law complain that it unfairly implies that imported foods are less safe than domestic foods and also places an unnecessary financial burden on wholesalers and retailers. They also emphasize that the extra cost of implementing the labeling law would be passed on to consumers already reeling from higher food prices.

Foes have been able to postpone the law's implementation several times since its initial approval in the 2002 Farm Bill. But public support for more labeling shifted after a salmonella outbreak in 30 states was linked to tainted tomatoes earlier this year and imported pet food from China containing the industrial chemical melamine was blamed for the deaths of dogs and cats in the United States in March 2007......

"Food safety concerns dominate the headlines almost daily and it is imperative consumers know where their food comes from," said Tom Buis, president of the National Farmer's Union, in a statement.

There is little consensus, however, about how helpful the labels actually will be in tracing tainted food. There have been outbreaks linked to food grown in the United States, as well as to imported food.

Guillermo Cole, spokesman for the Allegheny County Health Department, said, "In the event of an outbreak, a food-borne illness, it would certainly help trace the suspect foods, if you happen to know if it's from a domestic source or a foreign source."

But because the labels don't connect commodities to a specific farm or ranch, its reach will be limited.

The law would have no effect on the current scare regarding contaminated milk products from China, because dairy is not regulated by the law.

Because labels have been required on seafood and shellfish since 2005, it is possible to examine the effects that such labels have on consumer behavior. It is indisputable that the labels have made it much easier for consumers to find fish harvested by sustainable methods or fish with lower levels of mercury.

There continue to be investigations and complaints regarding the accuracy of these labels, however. Valerie Craig, senior project manager of Seafood Choices Alliance, takes this as evidence that the law has an impact, because "if consumers weren't paying attention to what they were buying, there would be less incentive to mislabel" farmed fish as wild.

Producers, wholesalers and retailers all must maintain and display the origin of commodities covered by the law, which carries a six-month grace period to add the labels.

Despite the grace period, many stores including Giant Eagle, the largest grocery chain in the region, plan to implement the law immediately.

"We have held training sessions with all meat and produce corporate and store team members," said spokesman Dick Roberts. "As this is a process that involves multiple levels of participation, systems are in place at the necessary supplier, warehouse and store levels to ensure that all affected products have the mandated country of origin labeling."

Whole Foods, which has voluntarily provided labels for the country of origin since the 1980s, also will be adding labels to certain foods not covered by the law, said Libba Letton, a Whole Foods spokesperson.

China Millman can be reached at or 412-263-1198.


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