Playing It COOL: Country of Origin Labeling and Food Safety


(Graphic from Wal-Mart Watch)

You might be used to seeing ‘Made in China’ (or Mexico, or Bangladesh, or the USA) labels in your clothing, on toys and electronics. But you haven’t seen them on your food– and you won’t, if manufacturers’ groups like the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) have their way.

Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) was introduced as part of the 2002 farm bill. But thanks to pressure from industry, the bill was passed without the COOL provision, which has been delayed several times since. The only food currently required to reveal its country of origin is fish sold in supermarkets; however, when ace nutritionist Marion Nestle investigated supermarket fish departments while writing her book What to Eat, she found that the law was little observed and very rarely enforced. Still, it’s better than nothing, which is the amount food producers and sellers are currently required to tell you. They are, of course, allowed to label products with their country of origin on a voluntary basis, but none do unless the origin is itself a selling point (as with French cheeses or Italian olive oil, for example). And our food’s increasing distance from its origins means that sometimes even tying down the country of origin is nearly impossible: a fast-food hamburger may have a bun made with wheat from the US and Argentina, high-fructose corn syrup from the US, meat from hundreds of cattle in three countries all mixed together in a batch, lettuce from Chile, tomatoes from Mexico, and artificial smoke flavoring from a laboratory in New Jersey.

Country of origin labeling has been around almost as long as the US has, but was popularized in the 1980s and early 1990s by union campaigns that urged the public to ‘buy American’ as a misguided attempt at preventing corporations from moving manufacturing jobs overseas. The idea was that a boycott of non-American-made goods would hit manufacturers in the wallet enough to compensate for the cheap sweatshop labor to be had in developing countries. However, manufacturers simply worked with the Clinton administration to pass NAFTA, GATT and similar pacts that created special low-tax, low-wage manufacturing zones in developing countries. They also influenced the passage of laws to allow ‘made in the USA’ labeling on products made or assembled partially in the US. Helping sweatshop workers overseas to unionize their factories might have been a more effective strategy; instead, the campaign devolved into xenophobia. (For more, check out Dana Frank’s book Buy American: The Untold Story of Economic Nationalism.)

One might attribute similar motives to COOL– origin labeling as a way to ‘buy American,’ support American farmers and show one’s patriotism. But just as protectionists’ intentions clashed with the interests of manufacturers running sweatshops in Special Economic Zones around the world, food manufacturers aren’t interested in providing more information to consumers. Remember: when ingredient labeling, Nutrition Facts labeling, and the regulation of health claims were all proposed, these guys fought like wildcats. (Well, maybe more like 800-pound gorillas, given their influence in Congress.) What are they hiding?

Well, first of all, ‘buying American’ in the supermarket doesn’t mean that you’re supporting small farmers. If you want to do that, and I hope you do, then buy produce and meat from your local farmers’ market, and not only will you support farmers, you’ll actually get to meet them and talk to them about the food they grow. But the increasingly vast majority of farming in the US is done by massive agricultural conglomerates at the expense of small farmers. (You can read more from those farmers here.)

But it’s more than that. It’s impossible to make an informed decision about your food without, well, information. Perhaps you’re worried about carbon emissions, and you’d like to buy food that hasn’t been shipped in by air. As it stands, you have no way of determining that information from the labels in your supermarket. Maybe you prefer fresh vegetables that haven’t spent the last four days in a hot truck? Good luck guessing which those are, if they’re even present. Perhaps you read What to Eat and you now want to avoid fish from Northern European waters, which are the most polluted. Too bad the current COOL rules for fish label the country of origin according to the registration of the ship that caught the fish, not where the fish was actually caught. (Really.) Food producers like those represented by GMA know that if you have information, you’ll be able to make decision about what you do and don’t want to buy on the basis of health, taste, environmental impact and politics, and that of course would be highly unprofitable for every company that produces a product you’d be better off not buying.

COOL rules have been consistently delayed from passing for the last six years, but it’s the issue of food safety that might finally spur its passage. The recent spate of food contamination scandals involving imports from China is throwing the current US food safety regulation system into question. A batch of contaminated wheat gluten (a product that is surprisingly difficult to avoid) poisoned dog food that was imported from China into the US and caused the deaths of several pets. Subsequent discoveries have included contaminated seafood, pork, toothpaste, and lead-based paint in toys.

Much of the US press coverage of this issue has taken a decidedly racist turn, painting China as the new ‘Yellow Peril‘ threatening the safety of American citizens. But this logic obscures the fact that the US is largely to blame for food safety issues in China– and that we’re not so hot at safeguarding our own citizens from domestic threats to our food supply. China exported over $200 billion in goods, including food products, to the US in 2007, a number that has tripled since 2000 and is set to keep growing. It’s the world’s biggest manufacturing export economy, and it’s booming precisely because retailers see China as the place to go for bargain-basement goods.

As retail consultant Neil Stern of Chicago’s McMillan/Doolittle LLP told the Chicago Tribune last summer, “Consumers want it cheaper and faster, so you’re not getting the same quality control and inspection. When retailers drive down margins so far, if manufacturers want to make a profit, they have to cut corners. It is a trade-off.” In these conditions, with millions of producers working feverishly to produce as much as possible while under pressure to keep prices at rock-bottom, and an inadequate and often corrupt inspection system in place, it’s not surprising that the Chinese food safety system fails. What is more surprising is that the US system isn’t all that much better, despite its being a richer country with a long history of regulation. The problem is that food regulation is split up along fairly unintuitive lines between several agencies, including the USDA, FDA and AT, and has a long and sordid history of manipulation by and for industry. (For a thorough and alarmingly frank review of this history, see Marion Nestle, Food Politics, or read my review for a summary.)

China isn’t the problem. The problem is that our food supply is controlled by manufacturing conglomerates that produce for profit, not for nutrition, health or even taste. It’s regulated by governments that prioritize business interests over the safety of their citizens, and it’s designed to provide us, the consumers, with as little information as possible about the true origins of our food.

Country of origin labeling isn’t a solution in itself– knowing a food’s country of origin still doesn’t tell you anything about the conditions in which it is grown or caught, the way it is processed or the way it is shipped. It is, however, a start. A November 2007 poll found that 85% of Americans favor COOL and want to know where their food comes from. The mainstream media is beginning to follow suit, as even Forbes Magazine and the New York Times call for passage of COOL laws. As the American public grows increasingly uneasy about its overprocessed, sugar-filled, additive-laden diet, there is more and more potential for a real movement, one that can demand not only information, but safe, healthy food that comes from somewhere and tastes like something. We don’t have to keep eating this way, but if we want real food, we’ll have to take on the industries that profit from our taste for cheap, fake food and from the health problems it gives us.

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