After five years of delays, a coalition of nearly 50 organizations is calling on Congress to fund immediate mandatory country-of-origin labeling for meat and produce. "The integrity and safety of the nation's food supply is in serious jeopardy with our citizens eating an amalgam of food produced elsewhere, with no idea of its source," read the May 21 letter to Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis. "[T]he Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture have not established a food safety inspection system sufficient to deal adequately with the tidal wave of food imports included in our food supply."
The letter states that while food imports have more than doubled since 2000, the amount of food inspected has dropped by 40 percent. Recent scares, such as contaminated rice and contaminated wheat and corn gluten in pet food have highlighted the lower food production standards of countries such as China, thus demonstrating consumers' need to know where their food is coming from, the letter said.
Country-of-origin labeling was approved in the 2002 Farm Bill, but its implementation was delayed to Sept. 30, 2008. Leading the effort to fund the labeling requirement is Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America. CEO Bill Bullard attributes the delay to aggressive lobbying by meatpackers, processors and retailers. "Consumers should be able to choose, but meatpackers and retailers do not want consumers to exercise choice," he said. "They would rather continue to source their products from other countries."
Until customers are able to differentiate between U.S. and imported beef, Bullard said, it will be impossible for domestic cattle producers to compete with cheaper foreign products.
The Center for Food Safety, which also signed the letter to Congress, says country-of-origin labeling is a step toward improving traceability of products in the food industry and it could have a positive impact on the environment. "Given we don't have an adequate way to regulate food imports, as proven by recent events, this is one way to protect consumers," said Joseph Mendelson, legal director for the center.
When a problem with the food supply does occur, he explained, it's important that health officials know where that food came from so they can trace it back to the source. Indirectly, his organization hopes that country-of-origin labeling could help slow climate change. Once consumers have a greater awareness of the thousands of miles food travels to get to their plates, they might start focusing more on domestic products, he said.
In the meantime, consumers who want to know where their food is coming from may have a hard time getting that information, even if they call their retailer. "If you're purchasing organic you may have a better chance by calling the certifier on the label," Mendelson said.