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Published: Saturday, 10/4/2008

Really COOL labeling

Giving consumers the knowledge to make targeted food choices and to avoid contaminated products was an argument for labeling

KNOWLEDGE is power, and the food-labeling law that went into effect this week, giving grocery shoppers more information about where everything from ground beef to fresh Macadamia nuts come from, will empower American consumers.

U.S. grocery stores are world marketplaces, offering meats, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and thousands of other products from the four corners of the globe. Since 2005, fish and seafood have been labeled to indicate both country of origin and whether the product was farm-raised or caught wild, but no comparable requirement has existed for beef, pork, chicken, fruit, vegetables, or nuts.

Advocates pushed for country-of-origin labeling - called COOL - for several years but were opposed by the food industry, which argued that labeling would be cumbersome and costly. The idea gained steam, however, after a salmonella outbreak linked to tomatoes earlier this year, the discovery of the industrial chemical melamine in pet food imported from China in 2007, and a 2006 E. coli outbreak traced to California spinach.

Obviously, knowledge about where tainted fruits, vegetables, meats, or nuts came from would allow consumers to make more targeted food choices, avoiding only the contaminated products. That, in itself, was a powerful argument in favor of labeling.

But it isn't the only advantage COOL provides.

Many people prefer to purchase U.S.-produced food whenever possible in order to support American farmers. Other people might want to avoid products from countries with a history of hygiene problems, such as China.

And still others don't want their consumer dollars supporting repressive regimes. COOL makes all of these choices possible for a considerably wider range of agricultural products than has been possible in the past.

Unfortunately, the labeling regulations cover only unprocessed foods. So, while ground beef, pork chops, and raw chicken have to carry labels disclosing their country of origin, bacon, ham, and fried chicken do not. Apples, grapes, pears, and melons are included, but not fruit salad. Raw cashews and peanuts are covered, roasted peanuts are not. Dairy products aren't included either, a deficiency highlighted by the ongoing scandal associated with Chinese milk-powder products.

Hopefully, these are deficiencies that can be addressed over time, but they should not distract us from the gains resulting from mandatory labeling.

Greater knowledge means American consumers will be able to make better choices about what they put on their tables at dinner time, and that's really cool.

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