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New Regulations Mandate Country of Origin Labels

produceNew regulations at U.S. supermarkets are giving consumers information about where the fresh food they buy originates.

Country of origin labels will now be on beef, pork, lamb, chicken, goat meat, perishable agricultural commodities, peanuts, pecans, ginseng, and macadamia nuts. For safety advocates it is a huge step forward.

"It's vitally important to ensure that products coming in from other countries as well as ones growing here are quickly identified in an outbreak," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, Director of Food and Safety Center for Science in the Public Interest.

But some food safety advocates say country of origin labeling is not specific enough, and say that labels should contain bar codes that can automatically trace foods all the way back to the farm.
Dr. Mercola's Comments:
Country of origin labeling, known as COOL, was mandated as part of a Farm Bill back in 2002, then put on hold because of extensive lobbying from food groups who said the new rule would be exorbitantly expensive.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that first-year costs of COOL would be $1,530 for retail stores, although a study by the Food Marketing Institute found costs to be closer to $9,000 to $16,000 per store.

The extra expense would certainly be worth it if it meant safer, higher quality food for Americans. But will COOL really make a difference?

The COOL Controversy

Many consumer groups and individuals support country of origin labeling because it gives you knowledge about where your food is coming from. This is clearly a good thing; it should be a basic right to know where your food comes from. Of course, food manufacturers who get a lot of their product from places like China or Mexico, which have received a lot of bad press lately, are worried that no one will want to buy their products.

Opponents say that COOL won’t make food any safer, but would simply serve as a marketing tool benefiting U.S.-grown foods.

From an environmental perspective, country of origin labeling makes it easier to choose foods grown nearby, or at least in the same country. It really doesn’t make much sense to purchase, say, mushrooms from China when you can get the same product from the United States.

On the other hand, though the labels give you more information than ever before about where your food comes from, they are glaringly deceptive. For instance:

• Foods produced in the United States but packed somewhere else (a common practice) may be labeled “product of USA”
• Processed foods do not have to be labeled
• Foods used as ingredients in other products don’t have to be labeled (so while lettuce has to be labeled, salad mixes do not)
• If a store adds spices or does any additional processing to an imported food, it is considered to have undergone “substantial transformation” and can be labeled “Made in USA” (even if the original food or ingredient came from China or another country)

There are many other exceptions as well. For instance raw peanuts must be labeled, but roasted ones don’t have to be. Similarly fresh strawberries require a label, but chocolate-covered strawberries do not.

Even assuming you could tell that a food is grown in the United States instead of Chili, New Zealand or anywhere else, does it necessarily mean it’s safe?

U.S.-Grown Food is Plagued With Problems Too

You will now have the ability to choose a many U.S.-grown foods over those from other countries, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re healthier or safer. The United States has had many food scares in recent years, from tainted spinach grown in California to the massive beef recall -- the largest in U.S. history.

Some U.S.-grown produce is also being subject to potentially harmful irradiation while many other U.S. foods, from meat to eggs to milk, come from factory farms with some of the most horrific conditions you can imagine. The United States is also a world leader in the production of genetically modified foods, so the new labels will do nothing to protect you from those risks.

So if you’re thinking you can stick to only U.S.-grown food as somewhat of a “gold standard,” you are being misled.

Even with the new COOL law, there remain only two surefire ways to know your food is safe. The first is to grow it yourself, and the second is to get it directly from a farm, farmer’s market or community-supported agriculture program in which you have personally inspected the growing conditions and judged them to be safe.

Locally Grown Option Best

There are several reasons why opting for locally grown produce is one of the best choices you can make. These include:

• Freshness and taste
• Wanting to keep farmland and open spaces in the community
• A desire to be close to the food source and know where it comes from
• Support of local farmers and keeping money in the community
• Increased food safety

And according to one grocery chain poll, a full 82 percent of customers said locally grown produce simply tastes better.

Not only is locally grown food tastier and healthier, but there is something about shopping for fresh foods in an open-air, social environment that just feels right. The mere act of shopping for your food in this kind of environment even tends to inspire more healthful living, as research by the Economic and Social Research Council has confirmed. 

They found that people who participated in alternative food networks (which supply primarily locally grown foods), typically:

• Increased their consumption of fruits and vegetables
• Improved their cooking skills
• Improved their knowledge about food
• Changed their behaviors in relation to other goods, such as household products and clothes

If you want to experience some of these benefits first-hand, check out this list of some great resources to obtain locally grown, wholesome food that supports not only you but also the environment.

+ Sources and References