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Labels detail where food is from

Tue., Sept. 30, 2008

Born in the USA? Made in Mexico? Picked in Peru? Cultivated in Canada?

Supermarket shoppers, now you know.

Starting today, new federal rules take effect requiring all U.S. supermarkets and large food retailers to provide labels telling consumers which country a wide variety of food came from.

Covered by the new rules: ground beef, chicken, pork, veal, steak, lamb and goat, along with fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, macadamia nuts, pecans and peanuts.

Although there are some loopholes – for instance “processed foods” like bacon aren’t covered – consumer groups say the labels will allow shoppers to bypass foods from countries with poor hygiene records, or to deliberately help U.S. farmers and ranchers.

Retailers can comply with labels on meat packages, twist ties on asparagus, stickers on apples – it doesn’t matter. They simply must say where the food came from or face fines up to $1,000.

“People really want to know ‘What the heck am I eating?’ ” said Naomi Starkman, one of the organizers of the Slow Food Nation conference in San Francisco earlier this month, which, among other things, encouraged people to eat locally produced products.

“If you know that peppers from Mexico might have salmonella, then maybe you would say ‘I want to buy peppers from California.’ Or maybe you would want to know that your food has a smaller carbon footprint. You can buy apples from Washington instead of New Zealand.”

The rules were championed by small cattle ranchers in the 2002 farm bill after the outbreak of mad cow disease in British beef. They were stalled for years in Washington, D.C., however, when the Food Marketing Institute and Grocery Manufacturers Association lobbied the Bush administration for delays.

But after a recent spate of food-borne illnesses, the U.S. Department of Agriculture unveiled the new rules this fall.

Similar “country of origin label” or “COOL” rules for fish took effect in 2005. There are loopholes. For example, butcher shops, fish markets, restaurants and school cafeterias are exempt, as are “processed foods.” That means pork must be labeled, but not bacon; corn, but not frozen corn and carrot mixes; raw almonds but not trail mix.


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