Not so COOL: New food labelling law falls short
September 30, 2008
A federal law that takes effect today will require supermarkets and other big food retailers to label or otherwise display the country of origin for meat, produce, and certain kinds of nuts.
Sounds great right? After all most of us do want to know where our food comes from. The new law will should help us choose food from countries we feel are safe, and avoid countries that may have less than optimal food safety standards. If only it were that simple.
For starters the labels won’t apply to meat or produce that has been cooked or processed. Plain ground beef must carry a label, but if a package contains a blend of meats from several countries, the rules don’t require the countries to be listed in order of the percentage of food they contributed. A salad package containing different kinds of leaf lettuce will have to be labeled, but a package containing different kinds of vegetables, such as peas and carrots, won’t. Fresh strawberries get a label but not chocolate-covered ones. Raw peanuts? Label. Roasted ones? No label. Those popular pre-washed salad mixes? Sometimes.
The labels will be required only at retailers that sell at least $230,000 of fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables annually. That’s because the Agriculture Department, in setting the terms of the labeling law, borrowed the definition of a licensed food retailer from the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act, a law that dates to 1930. That effectively excludes outlets such as butcher shops and fish markets, because they typically don’t sell produce.
The labels will not really protect us from contaminated food. Recent salmonella cases, for instance, struck diners eating salsa at small Mexican restaurants in the Southwest. The label law, though, exempts restaurants and salad bars.
The new label laws will make food more expensive. American companies will spend $2.5 billion next year complying with new country-of-origin food label rules, the Agriculture Department estimates. The Agriculture Department also reported this month that the start-up costs will be followed by $499 million in annual maintenance costs. Who do you think is going to shoulder these added costs? That would be you and me in the form of even higher prices at the grocery store.
Don’t comply, mislead and mislabel – Big companies have nothing to fear. The law goes into effect today, although USDA won’t begin fining laggards until spring. Violations can bring a $1,000 penalty. Big whoop.
http://www.hpj.com/archives/2008/sep08/sep29/RMFUcriesfoulonUSDAmovetoru.cfm, http://www.wisconsinagconnection.com/story-national.php?Id=2255&yr=2008, http://www.cnn.com/2008/HEALTH/09/29/food.origin.labels.ap/, http://www.wsj.com/article/SB122212214681364875.html