You Have a Right to Know
|July 7, 2007||Posted by Staff under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
You Have a Right to Know
Where Does Your Food Come From?
Open disclosure versus secrecy — a typical confrontation between Democrats and Republicans. Food safety advocates, free market supporters, and consumer rights groups all favor open disclosure.
Here are excerpts from an editorial appearing in the New York Times (U.S.).
With imports of agricultural products rising sharply and sporadic scares about their safety, Americans surely have a right to know what country their food has come from. Unfortunately, they have little chance of finding out, due to the intransigence of meat importers and grocery retailers.
Corporate lobbyists for both groups have blocked a 2002 law that requires country-of-origin labels on fresh fruits and vegetables, red meats, seafood and peanuts. Only the seafood part of the law has been put into effect, largely because Alaskan fishermen liked some of its provisions and had a powerful champion in the Senate.
With the recent questions about Chinese seafood, those labels mean that consumers can make informed choices at the seafood counter — something they should be able to do with all of their food purchases.
As Andrew Martin reported, the Bush administrations Agriculture Department was hostile to the labeling from the start. That comes as no surprise given that many of its top officials had worked for a trade association representing meatpackers and ranchers that opposes consumer information. The Republican-controlled Congress, with key members beholden to campaign contributions from agribusiness corporations, twice delayed the starting date for mandatory labeling, ultimately pushing it back to September 2008.
Industry lobbyists raise a flurry of unpersuasive objections. They claim it would be too costly for American meatpackers to segregate and track imported meat, and especially difficult to label ground meat which often comes from different cows. They also claim that labeling is a disguised form of protectionism, which implies that all foreign food is suspect. But these rationales are trumped by the simple argument that consumers have a right to know the origins of what they are buying. The required record-keeping should also help in tracking any dangerous products back through the supply chain to the source of contamination.
With the Democrats now in control of Congress, it is time to put an end to the excuses and delays, and finally implement the labeling requirement preferably without waiting until late 2008. This could be done through the mammoth farm policy bill that will be up for a vote in coming months or through an agriculture appropriations bill. There should be no compromise of the basic principle that consumers have a right to know where their food comes from before popping it into their mouth.
Andrew Martin comments:
With Democrats in control of Congress and mounting questions about the safety of food imported from China, proponents of the law say they believe that they finally have momentum on their side. After all, they say, at a time when consumers are ever more concerned about where their food is coming from, why not just tell them on the package?
No. 1, theres a basic consumer right to know, said Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union, an advocacy group that publishes Consumer Reports magazine and supports the labeling law. People are more and more concerned about the food they eat. But there are many anti-law groups, including the meat lobby, which so far has outmaneuvered its opponents on Capitol Hill. In the years since the labeling law was enacted as part of the 2002 Farm Bill, its opponents have successfully blocked all but seafood labeling from taking effect.
Critics say meatpackers simply do not want consumers to know that an increasing amount of hamburger meat and produce is being imported.
The battle over the labeling law comes at a time when American farmers are facing increasing competition from all corners of the world: soybeans from Brazil, wheat from Ukraine and apples from China, to name a few. American consumers, meanwhile, are eating more food grown and processed overseas. During the last decade, the value of imported food has roughly doubled, to $65.3 billion in 2006. The biggest supporters of the labeling law in Congress come from Great Plains states where ranchers face stiff competition from Canada.
The United Fishermen of Alaska say that origin labeling has increased demand and prices for their wild salmon. And with the current concerns over Chinese seafood, labeling of seafood gives consumers the option to buy something else, advocates say.
Mark D. Dopp, senior vice president for regulator affairs and general counsel for the American Meat Institute, a trade group, strangely admitted that U.S. meat is no better than imported meat. They talk about how the quality is better in the United States … the standards are all the same. For these people to talk about how all this inferior product is coming in, its just nonsense.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign spending, Mr. Bonilla — the congressman who stalled the law — received $158,328 in campaign funds in 2006 from the livestock industry, making him the top recipient in Congress. He was also the top recipient of campaign funds from the livestock industry in 2004, with $132,900, and ranked second in 2002, with $78,350.
Mr. Bonilla, who was defeated in 2006 by Ciro Rodriguez, said it was common for committee chairmen to receive contributions from the industries that they oversee. Mr. Bonilla does not dispute that he delayed the labeling law from taking effect.
Now, with Democrats in charge of Congress, advocates of the labeling law are trying to mount their own lobbying and public relations blitz on Capitol Hill. And for now, they are receiving a warmer welcome from some Congressional leaders. For instance, Mr. Bonillas successor on the subcommittee, Representative Rosa L. DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, is a supporter of the labeling law.
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