Clothes carry them. So do automobiles, children’s toys, computers and most other products sold in America.
But in the produce departments of most American grocery stores, there are no labels on fruit and vegetables to tell consumers which countries they came from.
From artichokes to zucchini, fresh produce has largely been exempted from country-of-origin labeling laws since they were first passed in the 1930s.
Sponsors of legislation in Congress that would require grocery stores to use signs telling shoppers where the produce originated say it’s a consumer’s right to know - particularly in light of incidents such as the recent outbreak of hepatitis from Mexican strawberries.
“This is a common-sense way of providing the American consumer with basic information about the produce they may want to purchase,” said Rep. Sonny Bono, R-Calif., the main sponsor.
The measure is strongly supported by groups representing U.S. fruit and vegetable producers. But there is another powerful motive at work.
In 1996, the United States imported $1.7 billion in fruit and vegetables from other countries. And since adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexican vegetables - particularly tomatoes - have consistently gained market share.
One group at the forefront of the country-of-origin push is the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, which represents tomato producers who once had a near-monopoly on winter sales in the United States. Now, they must compete with Mexico.
“We see this as a thinly veiled effort to limit or restrict imported produce,” said Edie Clark, spokeswoman for the Food Marketing Institute, which represents the supermarket industry.
The Clinton administration has not yet taken a position.
Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, however, said there are “pitfalls” to requiring the labels because foreign governments might decide to retaliate against American products sold in their countries.