WASHINGTON – No more wondering where your hamburger came from, or where your lettuce and tomatoes were grown: Starting this week, shoppers will see lots more foods labeled with the country of origin.
It's a law years in the making but timely, as China's milk scandal and the recent salmonella-tainted Mexican peppers prompt growing concern over the safety of imported foods.
Still, hold the import-bashing: Numerous outbreaks in recent years have come from U.S.-produced foods, like spinach grown in California.
Until now, shoppers have had little clue where many everyday foods — meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, certain nuts — originate. That's what the so-called COOL law, for country-of-origin labeling, changes.
Those who want to buy local — or who prefer, say, Chilean grapes and New Zealand lamb — can more easily exercise their purchasing power. Those worried about lax safety regulations in certain countries can avoid those imports. And the next time tomatoes are suspected of food poisoning, consumers may be able to tell investigators they bought only ones grown in a certain region, speeding the probe.
"We do see it as an important step on the road to a more comprehensive system for tracing food items" during outbreaks, says Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
"It will be a very good thing because we'll have a lot more information," adds Jean Halloran of Consumers Union. But, "you can still be fooled by the COOL label."
How? There are bunches of exceptions. Fresh strawberries get a label but not chocolate-covered ones. Raw peanuts? Label. Roasted ones? No label. Those popular pre-washed salad mixes? Sometimes.
Here are some common questions as shoppers navigate the change:
Q: What does the new law require?
A: That retailers notify customers of the country of origin — including the U.S. — of raw beef, veal, lamb, pork, chicken, goat, wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish, fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, peanuts, pecans, macadamia nuts and whole ginseng. (The aim was big agricultural commodities; ginseng was added for fear of imports masquerading as U.S.-grown.)
Q: Where will I see the country of origin?
A: Anywhere it fits. The rubber band around asparagus; the plastic wrap on ground beef; the little sticker that says "Gala" on an apple. If a food isn't normally sold in any packaging — such as a bin of fresh green beans or mushrooms — then the store must post a sign.
Q: Aren't many foods already labeled?
A: Some fresh produce already uses origin labeling as advertising. "Fresh from Florida" or "Jersey Grown" or "Vidalia Onion" tags don't have to be changed under the new rules; the shopper should realize they're all U.S. products.
The COOL law mandating such labels first passed in 2002, but lobbying by grocery stores and large meatpackers led Congress to delay the U.S. Department of Agriculture from implementing it. Seafood labeling was phased in first, in 2005 — a key change given recurring safety problems with fish and shellfish from certain countries, including China.
Q: What's the biggest exception?
A: The labels aren't for processed foods, meaning no label if the food is cooked, or an ingredient in a bigger dish or otherwise substantially changed. So plain raw chicken must be labeled but not breaded chicken tenders. Raw pork chops are labeled, but not ham or bacon. Fresh or frozen peas get labeled, but not canned peas. Raw shelled pecans, but not a trail mix.
Q: What if the foods are merely mixed together?
A: They're exempt, too. So cantaloupe slices from Guatemala get labeled. Mix in some Florida watermelon chunks, and no label. Frozen peas, labeled. Frozen peas and carrots, no label. As for bagged salads, USDA considers iceberg and Romaine to be just lettuce, so that bag gets a label. Add some radicchio? No label.
Q: Must all stores comply?
A: No. Meat and seafood sold in butcher shops and fish markets are exempt.
Q: What if companies buy food from various places — beef from both U.S. and Mexican ranchers, for instance?
A: That's a bone of contention between large U.S. meat producers and smaller ranchers that produce exclusively U.S. animals. Tyson Fresh Meats, for instance, says it's too expensive to separate which of its cattle came from which country. So in a July letter to customers, Tyson said it would label all beef "Product of the U.S., Canada or Mexico." The National Farmers Union is protesting; USDA is considering the complaints.
Q: Aren't country labels on some processed foods?
A: Yes, tariff regulations have long required that a food put into consumer-ready packaging abroad be labeled as an import; that doesn't apply to bulk ingredients.
Q: When does the change take effect?
A: The law goes into effect Tuesday, although USDA won't begin fining laggards until spring. Violations can bring a $1,000 penalty.