Food Rules: Labels Must Now Give Origin

New regulations at U.S. supermarkets are giving consumers the knowledge they have been asking for—where the fresh food they buy originates.

Recent food contaminations have made headlines across the globe causing deaths, illness and overall unease. Most recently melamine has tainted dairy from China, salmonella was found in peppers in Mexico, there were cases of E. coli infected spinach from California and beef originating in Omaha.

The country of origin labels will now be on beef, pork, lamb, chicken, goat meat, perishable agricultural commodities, peanuts, pecans, ginseng, and macadamia nuts. The labeling will provide a sense of safety and accountability to concerned consumers.

For safety advocates it is a huge step forward. "It's vitally important to ensure that products coming in from other countries as well as ones growing here are quickly identified in an outbreak," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, Director of Food and Safety Center for Science in the Public Interest.

But some food safety advocates say country of origin labeling is not specific enough. They want to see labels containing bar codes that can automatically trace foods all the way back to the farm.

The tomato industry was furious with the Food and Drug Administration when their crop was wrongly targeted this past summer in one of the nation's largest salmonella outbreaks. Better labeling, and especially the use of barcodes in labels, could have streamlined the investigation and saved millions of dollars when perfectly good tomatoes were left to rot.

The labeling law passed in 2002, but food producers fought it until now because of the cost and burden.

"The industry has fought labeling tooth and nail because if you have labeling… people could decide whether they wanted to eat this food or not," says Michael Pollan, author of "In Defense of Food." There are worries that though peppers from Mexico are safe now, as is spinach from California, consumers might not be interested in buying these foods from these locations.

There are loopholes in this new labeling system. Foods produced in the United States but packed in Mexico can still be labeled "product of USA." This common practice hindered government investigators when they were searching for tainted tomatoes. If a product like hamburger meat contains ground beef from the U.S. and another country, both will be listed but there won't be specific indication of what percentage comes from each country.

Processed foods like bacon need no labeling; nor do foods used as ingredients in other products. For instance, lettuce must now be labeled, but salad mixes containing lettuce and carrots will not be. Raw shrimp requires a label but if the store adds spices, it then becomes unnecessary. "We need to go much farther to have a system of traceability that consumers can really trust," says DeWaal.

Food producers have up to six months to comply with the new law. After that they could face fines up to $1,000.

Besides being a better way to track meats and produce the law could make people more aware of their actions. Buying locally grown products could infuse the local economy. It also lessens the food's carbon imprint since the trip from the farm to the market is shorter.