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U.S. Consumers Want Country of Origin on Food Labels

The recent discovery that some food imports from China were tainted with toxins has raised health concerns among American consumers, and renewed calls for stricter safeguards for the nation's food supply.

It has also sparked public debate over the government's failure to enforce a law Congress passed five years ago requiring country-of-origin labels on all meat, fish, fruit and vegetables sold in the U.S.

The issue is pitting food industry lobbyists against food safety and consumer activists.

When it comes to food, Bernie Delario is no impulse shopper. He decides what to buy based on the product label. "I'll go to the ingredients, and if I see things that don't look very natural to me, I'll tend to put it down."

But Delario says he wants to know more. "I think the origin printed on the label would be a good thing for everyone."

The 2002 Farm Bill - a complex package of food and agriculture legislation that Congress passes every five years - mandated that meat, fruit, vegetables and peanuts be labeled as to their countries of origin. But implementation has been repeatedly delayed, experts say, by the powerful influence of grocery and meat industry lobbyists.

People like Mark Dopp. He is Senior Vice President for Regulatory Affairs with the American Meat Institute an industry trade association that has opposed the law. He says the very idea of a country-of-origin label is a multi-billion dollar nightmare.

"It is probably going to cost the meat industry somewhere between one to two billion dollars to reconfigure plants and set up the rest of the logistical changes that have to be implemented to handle animals with various heritages or origins."

Dopp says under the labeling law, the supermarket chains, meat packers and food processors face a daunting, if not impossible regulatory challenge. "I have got to keep the [animals] all separate and I've got to keep the labels on all of them separate and all of the products that are derived from them separate."

At the meat counter of a supermarket in Silver Spring, Maryland, we rendezvous with Sarah Klein. She is a staff attorney with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a national consumer advocacy group. She points out that the United States Department of Agriculture sticker on meat packages tells consumers only that the product has been U.S.D.A. inspected.

"What we can't tell is where the steak that produced this meat originated. Is it Argentine beef? Is this beef from Texas?"

Klein says under the new country-of-origin rules consumers can make a distinction between a U.S. product or a product from somewhere else."

The situation with fish is different. Eighty-three percent of American seafood is imported and, since 2004, every package of fish has carried a country-of-origin label. That's because consumer groups, the Alaskan fish industry and Alaskan officials demanded compliance with the law.

An August, 2007 a Zogby International poll of 45-hundred Americans finds 90 percent believe knowing the country of origin of the foods they buy will allow them to make safer food choices. Klein says the action would also help public health officials react more quickly in the event of a product recall.

"It [also] gives the industry a little bit of protection so that everybody does not have to suffer from the problems that have been created by one country."

Debby Rich reads labels. She makes decisions based on nutrition and the ingredients listed on the packaging. Shopping this day with her 7-year old twins, she says she favors a country of origin label. "Many countries have both farming and animal practices, which I find objectionable and I would like to know where my food comes from so that as a consumer I can make an educated choice."

Sarah Klein says if Rich is lucky she will get that information when the latest version of the law included in the 2007 Farm Bill now before Congress goes into effect in October, 2008.

But Klein says consumer advocates will continue to push for stricter food safeguards. As things stand now with the revised law, meat, fish and produce sold in small retail stores, butcher shops and fish markets would not have to be labeled, nor would poultry or processed foods like hotdogs. Food sold in restaurants would also be exempt from country-of-origin labels.