Amid a litany of safety problems with Chinese imports, a growing number of Americans want to know where their food is coming from.
A Consumer Reports poll released last week found that 92 percent of Americans agree that imported foods should be labeled by their country of origin. Four months ago, a separate survey by Food and Water Watch revealed that 82 percent of consumers support mandatory country of origin labeling. In a 2005 Public Citizen poll, 85 percent of respondents wanted the labeling.
"In general, people want to know where their food comes from not just to mitigate safety concerns, but to verify authenticity," said Urvashi Rangan, senior scientist and policy analyst at Consumers Union, nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports.
Mandatory country-of-origin labeling for meats, fish, produce and peanuts became law in the United States) in 2002. With the exception of seafood, implementation has been delayed until October 2008. Consumers Union is calling for immediate implementation of COOL.
Highly publicized safety concerns with imported seafood, toothpaste, and wheat gluten in pet food and animal feed have put the spotlight on China in recent months. However, an analysis of U.S. Food and Drug Administration data by the International Herald Tribune showed that U.S. inspectors have stopped even more food shipments from Mexico and India in the last year—indicating that the problem can't be attributed to a single country.
With the United States only inspecting a fraction of food imports and the government not having authority to recall foods, labeling can at least give the consumer some power, Rangan said.
Without such labels, consumers who want to buy U.S. products have a hard time doing so. A USA Today/Gallup poll released over the weekend found that more than half of consumers make an effort to buy U.S. food, but more than half of those shoppers say it's difficult to determine what countries the food in their grocery stores came from.
Industry groups like the American Meat Institute argue that country-of-origin labeling would be costly and burdensome, and that consumers don't want that knowledge if it would mean higher prices. They cite a 2006 International Food Information Council survey in which 82 percent of consumers could not think of any information "not currently included on food labels" that they would like to see added. Of the remaining 18 percent, most asked for additional nutritional information and ingredients—not country of origin.
Rangan acknowledges that the Consumer Reports poll did not ask if consumers would be willing to pay more for labeling. "We think the response rate is so high, it's clearly something the consumer does want," she said. "Consumers have been willing to pay more for mad cow tests."
The Consumer Reports poll also found that food labels such as "natural" and "organic" mislead consumers by not holding products to as high a standard as consumers expect. Nine out of 10 consumers in the poll expect that "natural" meat comes from animals that were not fed drugs, chemicals, or other artificial ingredients. Seventy percent want "natural" meat to mean it was not injected with salt water, a common practice.
"The natural label only pertains to processing," Rangan said. "It has nothing to do with what an animal ate or how it was raised. 'Natural' meat still could be injected with saltwater."
Likewise, 91 percent of consumers in the Consumer Reports poll expect "organic" fish to be free of or low in contaminants like PCBs and mercury, but imported fish is currently being marketed as organic in this country without any United States Department of Agriculture oversight.
The Center for Food Safety, along with Consumers Union and Food and Water Watch, filed a complaint last week with the United States Department of Agriculture urging the agency to protect the integrity of the organic label by preventing its use on seafood imports until enforceable standards are in place.
"[The] USDA's decision to allow importers to call their products organic when many of them use antibiotics or feed that would not be permitted under U.S. regulations is dishonest," said Joseph Mendelson, legal director for the Center for Food Safety. "Consumers have the right to know that the labeling on their food is truthful and accurate."