Country of Origin labels hit the produce aisle and meat counter

Produce and meats must be labeled by country of origin in accordance with a law that went into effect last week.
Monday, October 13, 2008 | 9:15 p.m. CDT; updated 9:35 p.m. CDT, Monday, October 13, 2008
At the Hy-Vee on West Broadway, the chicken is labeled in accordance with a recent law requiring the country-of-origin label on meats and produce. Most of the meats at Hy-Vee are from the United States.

Expect some changes to the produce and meat aisles of your favorite grocer. Look for a variety of country names reminiscent of a geography exam: Fresh garlic from China, bananas from Ecuador and steak from Canada.

As of Sept. 30, large retailers must let you know not only what you're eating, but where it came from.

The change, six years in the making, came after Congress passed the law, known as COOL, requiring country of origin labeling for meats, fish and produce as part of the 2002 Farm Bill. Seafood and shellfish labeling went into effect in 2005 and on Sept. 30, produce, peanuts, ginseng and some meats were thrown into the mix.

"There have been too many things going on with products from China, and that might be a prejudiced statement, but I don't think I want anything from there," said Wal-Mart shopper Allana Smith, referring to recent tainted food outbreaks. Smith said that she prefers to buy American goods, and labeling helps her do that.

Shoppers can now actively choose between homegrown and foreign products. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture can better track products during food outbreaks. But the law doesn't cover all retailers or all food, making the origin of many processed and packaged foods, such as cheeses and sauces, still a mystery to customers.

Among meats, only beef, goat, chicken, lamb and pork require origin labeling. But if the meat has been cooked, roasted, cured, smoked or breaded no country of origin label is required. Roasted peanuts, too, get no label, while raw peanuts and macadamia nuts do. Mixed produce, like pineapple and cantaloupe in a fruit cup, doesn't have to be labeled. And some meats can be labeled as coming from multiple countries.

At the Wal-Mart on West Broadway, the underside of a Genuine Steak House brand sirloin petite steak package read "product of USA, Canada, Mexico."

"It's very misleading and confusing and unnecessarily so," said Jean Halloran, the director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, the advocacy group that publishes Consumer Reports. She said that if at an American meat plant Canadian cows are processed along with American cows, then the meat company can label all the beef processed that day as products of Canada and the U.S. even if only one Canadian cow was processed. 

"There is no reason why they can't keep track of all their production from a particular place and if that means they have to do the American cows on Monday and the Canadian cows on Tuesday in order to keep track then they should do that," Halloran said. 

She described the exceptions to the labeling rule as legal loopholes that don't help consumers. She added that the Consumers Union supports a plan to have all food products labeled by origin and to have all stores included under the law.

As of now, retailers that sell more than $230,000 in perishable goods a year must identify country of origin. Billy Cox, a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, said the law excludes smaller grocers because the cost of labeling and maintaining records could be a burden. To meet the requirements of the regulation after next year, the nation's large grocers as a whole can expect to pay a total of $247 million yearly, he said.

Robert Potter, produce manager at the Hy-Vee on Broadway, could not comment on the store's incurred costs, but did say that all the produce had been labeled. A visit to the store found the majority of origin stickers on signs next to prices, but some were overlooked, like the papayas and flowering kale. Some chicken, too, lacked labels. 

At the Wal-Mart on West Broadway, produce price signs included origin labels, but employees missed some: the fresh green beans, tomatillos, Roma tomatoes and sweet "A" side red potatoes. USA labels accompanied most of the produce at both stores.

Although the ruling went into effect Sept. 30, customers shouldn't expect to see food consistently labeled or labeled at all. Stores have six months to comply, after which time they can rack up fines of up to $1,000 per offense, Cox said.

"I guarantee in six months we'll have all the kinks worked out and the consumer will know where everything is from," Hy-Vee perishables manager Matt Rohe said. "We are about in full compliance."

The benefits of origin labeling are two-fold: customers can shop smarter and farmers can get credit for their work, said Amy Meyer, executive director of the Missouri Farmers Union. 

"It does create an opportunity for those producers , a marketing opportunity. And I also just believe our producers, Missouri farmers and ranchers, are very proud of what they do and they want people to know that (the product) came from the United States and it's high quality," she said.

Hy-Vee shopper Jennifer Moran said she'd prefer labels that specify states of origin. To reduce her carbon footprint, she'd buy Missouri produce before California produce, and U.S. produce over imported produce.

"I'm willing to pay more for stuff that's local and from the U.S.," Moran said. 

Ronald Plain, MU professor of agricultural economics, disagrees with mandated country of origin labeling.

"I don't think it's very important," he said. "The safety standards, the quality standards are the same no matter which country it comes from if it's being sold in the U.S."

He said foreign food products are inspected in the U.S. just as domestic food products are inspected. But he said origin labeling does broaden consumers' choices.

"Periodically, there are food contamination issues in places of the world and this gives me information that when I read about a food problem in country 'X' that I might want to avoid buying food from that country for a while," he said. "But of course, we also had food contamination issues in the United States. With this labeling it'll give me an opportunity to avoid U.S. food and buy Canadian for a while."


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Emily Sussman October 14, 2008 | 10:51 a.m.

I'm still trying to figure out why that the steak package had three countries of origin listed on it! A little disturbing, no?

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