Natural Foods Merchandiser

Food-safety crises highlight need for labeling

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 wheat and corn gluten in pet food, have highlighted the lower food-production standards of countries such as China, demonstrating consumers' need to know where their food is coming from, the letter said.

China recently announced, however, that it would overhaul its food and drug safety regulations, and would introduce nationwide inspections. "Recently, our country has had a series of export food problems, and that has triggered a lot of overseas attention about China's food safety," said Wei Chaunzhong, deputy director of China's General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, according to a June 7 New York Times article. "This has put us on high alert, and led us to seriously look into the reasons for the problem."

China grows half of the world's vegetables and 15 percent of its fruit, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. The United States spends about $131 million annually on vegetable imports from China and about $29 million on fruit, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While those dollar amounts might seem impressive, they represent only about 1 percent of the total U.S. food supply. Still, many Americans would be surprised to know that certain crops are imported in great volume. For example, more than 50 percent of the garlic U.S. consumers bought last year was produced in China, not California, accord?ing to a recent report by USA Today. And, according to the same article, about 45 percent of the apple juice in U.S. stores comes from China.

"Given we don't have an adequate way to regulate food imports, as proven by recent events, this is one way to protect consumers."

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. "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.

Country-of-origin labeling was approv?ed in the 2002 Farm Bill, but its implementation was delayed to Sept. 30, 2008. Leading the effort to fund the labeling requirement are the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund and the United Stockgrowers of America. R-CALF Chief Executive Bill Bullard attributes the delay to aggressive lobbying by meatpackers, processors and retailers. "They would rather continue to source their products from other countries," he said.

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.

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.

Jessica Centers is a Denver-based freelance writer. Additional reporting by Laurie Budgar.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 7/p.14

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