Consumers Have a Right to Know About Tainted Food Imports
|August 21, 2007||Posted by Staff under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
Consumers Have a Right to Know About Tainted Food Imports
Small Steps Toward Food Safety
In the midst of Bush’s tainted food import scandal, China continues to dump unhealthy products in the U.S., without any objections from Bush.
Here are excerpts from an article appearing at seattlepi.com
by Andrew Schneider
Where did that food come from? Your guess is as good as the label Law would streamline regulations — if it passes
The apple-blackberry sauce sold widely in Seattle supermarkets, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture organic seal on the label, says it comes from Chino, Calif. It also says “Product of Canada.”
So how do you know where it’s from? You don’t.
Dried banana chips are labeled as being from Sumner. But banana trees don’t grow in Sumner. Peanut butter from Canada? There are no peanut farms in that country.
Congress passed a law in 2002 saying that consumers were to be told where the food they buy comes from. But five years later, shoppers who try to determine the origin of meat, poultry, fruit, vegetables and frozen or canned food in most of America’s grocery stores often enter an Oz-like land of obfuscations, omission or outright lies.
Without knowing where the food came from, consumers can’t be certain it is safe, experts say.
“This labeling becomes vital in ensuring that products are of high quality,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “If people know they’re going to get caught for shoddy practices, they’re much less likely to engage in them.”
So what happened to the labeling law?
The Agriculture Department, bowing to pressure from the meat lobby, the grocery industry and a Republican-dominated Capitol Hill, postponed the launching to 2004, then 2006 and finally to 2008, with the exception of seafood, which has been labeled since 2005. But the litany of recent reports on tainted food — E. coli in spinach, salmonella in peanut butter, botulism in chili and the still-growing list of tainted Chinese products — has prompted action.
Last month, the House Agriculture Committee updated the labeling law and the full House included it as part of a complex and long farm bill.
But don’t expect labels to immediately sprout throughout grocery stores. The Senate still has to weigh in, and then the Department of Agriculture has to write rules telling everyone in the food supply chain what the law actually demands. Also, President Bush has threatened a veto of the entire farm package.
However, the White House is “well aware” that more than 92 percent of consumers polled this spring said they want to know the origin of the food they buy, said Patty Lovera, assistant director of the public interest group Food and Water Watch.
The updated law would require that beef, pork, lamb, goat, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables carry a label with the origin of the food. The no-man’s-land of labeling would be the grocery store aisles of processed food in cans, jars and pouches. Labeling country-of-origin for processed food is voluntary and the new law would not change that.
A few groceries, especially high-end chains, already do extensive labeling of fresh produce.
“Because some stores are already labeling some of their produce, it will grow harder for other companies and interest groups to argue it cannot be done,” said Chuck Benbrook, chief scientist with the Organic Center, a nationwide, non-profit, food research organization.
Relying on the supplier
However, Benbrook and other food scientists say the inconsistencies even within chains trying to do it right can be enormous and food hazards can exist even if the origin is properly labeled.
“The globalization of the food system is occurring faster than government’s ability to even understand the sources of new risks, let alone prevent them,” said Benbrook, whose 28 years of experience includes leading congressional investigations and National Academy of Science studies into food safety issues.
There are a dozen different federal agencies in charge of the food supply, which DeWaal calls “chaotic and inefficient.”
Because cargo enters the United States through more than 300 ports and the government has inspectors at only a small fraction of the entry ports, how do stores ensure the quality of what they’re importing to sell?
Produce managers in several chain stores serving the Pacific Northwest and buyers or sales staff at some Pike Place Market stalls all said the same thing: They rely on the integrity of the companies from which they purchase.
Perceived integrity may not be enough, especially with fresh fruits and vegetables that may not be cooked before consumption, said Barb Bruemmer, a senior lecturer at the University of Washington’s Nutritional Sciences program.
“These products may be contaminated in the field or during handling,” she said. “It can be an issue with produce from the U.S. as well as from other countries, but the more lax the regulatory system, the higher the risk.”
Contamination may occur from many hazards, including tainted groundwater in the field, lack of safe water to rinse and clean produce, and the absence of the sanitation such as restrooms and hand-washing facilities, Bruemmer added.
“It’s not uncommon for dangerous food to be imported because manufacturers often work through brokers who don’t go to the growing fields or processing plants,” said Mary Mulry, who heads FoodWise Inc., a technical and scientific consulting firm to the natural and organic food industry.
Without direct, on-site inspections by either the broker or a reliable agent, the U.S. distributors would never know if the foreign manufacturer or grower substituted ingredients or mislabeled products or committed outright fraud, Mulry said. In some large chains, more than 80 percent of all produce is imported.
Budget-conscious consumers aren’t the only ones likely to buy mislabeled food. Shopping at the most expensive stores, even for the most costly items, is not a guarantee of quality and safety. Two extreme examples are exorbitantly priced fresh Italian white truffles and Russian beluga caviar. Some specialty stores have discovered that some suppliers selling them had mislabeled white truffles from China as Italian and purported Russian caviar actually was made from soy meal.
‘Local’ as marketing device
But even dealing with domestic products at the best stores, consumers still can get misleading information.
For example, food retailers long ago determined that consumers are attracted to products labeled “locally produced.”
Cooks think local means fresher. Environmentalists see eating local as energy saving, with lower fuel consumption for transportation. And most people, when they think of it, say they like helping the local farmer.
But who decides what local is?
At one large Seattle supermarket, baskets of fresh mangos sit under signs that read “Washington Pride. Grown right in your own backyard.” Some mangos near the bottom of the pile still bore the label “Product of Mexico.”
“Even the term local is not defined and may mean Western Washington or western U.S.,” Bruemmer said.
“It is a poorly controlled marketing device that’s sometimes used to make products called local more attractive to the consumer,” Benbrook said.
Some stories do try to offer definitions. Whole Foods’ Web site says only produce that has traveled less than seven hours from the farm to its facility can be labeled “locally grown.”
Another generally lucrative concept is to label foods produced in the United States as homegrown.
In the thousands of pages of public comments submitted over the years to Agriculture and congressional committees, corporate lawyers for gigantic agribusinesses as well as individuals working tiny family farms urge the mandatory use of “Made in USA” on food grown or processed in this country. Many openly discuss the increased profitability from the domestic label.
“Many farmers believe consumers will preferentially choose those products because they are made in USA, and consumers may believe that domestically produced food is safer,” DeWaal said.
But even that label can be misleading.
Does the “Made in the USA” label mean the food was grown domestically, or does it just mean the jars, cans and pouches were packed in the U.S.?
Tour the aisles in almost every grocery store and thousands of products can be found that say “Packaged by …” or “Distributed by …” or “Shipped from …” with no mention of the where the food came from.
That can lead to such puzzlements as the dried banana chips from Sumner, powdered mango from Seattle or guava filling from McMinnville, Ore.
There are some justifiable reasons why it is more complicated to do country-of-origin labels in a multi-ingredient food product.
“A single portion of chicken Kiev can have ingredients from 20 different countries,” DeWaal said. “Another reason that the traceability becomes a great deal more difficult is that supplier may be using salmon from Alaska one week and salmon from Chile the next.”
‘We don’t grow peanuts’
While the “Made in the USA” label may be comforting to most shoppers, marketing specialists agree that “Product of Canada” is not far behind in the warm and friendly category. Hundreds of products from north of the border can be found on grocery shelves throughout the Northwest.
But “Product of Canada” can be just as misleading as “Made in the USA.”
“There is already this bizarre discrepancy in labeling rules,” said Stephanie Wells, the Canadian liaison to the Organic Trade Association. “For instance, I can buy peanut butter that says “Product of Canada,” but I know we don’t grow peanuts.
“The country of origin thing is a bit of a sticky wicket,” she said. “We don’t know if we can ask for a more, shall we say, honest system. It is misleading and in many cases, not at all honest to falsify the origin of a product.
“And of course, consumers aren’t happy about it either. If they want to buy Canadian, they really want something that is Canadian, not that just the final processing was done here.”
For 30 years, Paddy Doherty has been raising organic vegetables and sheep on his 500- acre farm in central British Columbia. He also is the chairman of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement Accreditation Committee.
“Consumers don’t like the idea of labels that say ‘Made in Canada,’ when in fact, it was only packaged or labeled here. I don’t like it either, nor do most of the most other farmers I know,” he said.
“It’s a question of integrity, national pride and safety,” he said. “If food is coming from China, I don’t want it sold here — or shipped to the states — with a Canadian label on it.
“It is bizarre to see coffee labeled ‘Made in Canada’ when I don’t believe there are any coffee plantations up here.”
Meanwhile in Japan
A new in-store computer system is being instituted that enables consumers to track the origin of the ingredients from the harvest to the neighborhood market.
Shoppers can trace the history of the vegetables for extensive information including the day of harvest, when and where they were packed and how they were shipped. Some producers display a photo of the farmer involved “to bring a sense of proximity as additional reassurance to the consumer,” the newsletter of Japan’s Food Safety Commission Secretariat reported earlier this year.
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