Sticker Shock: Where Does Your Food Come From?

If you want to find out where your T-shirt was made, just look inside the collar. Finding out where the food in your fridge comes from may not be so easy. Though some food sellers are eager to advertise their products’ local origins or exotic ingredients, much of the American food industry is reluctant to tell consumers where in the world it gets the $24 billion worth of meat and produce it imports every year. “Food labeling is turning into a huge fight,” says Jean Halloran of Consumers Union, which supports the introduction of mandatory country-of-origin labeling, also known as COOL. Under a provision in the 2002 Farm Bill, domestic and imported meat, fish, fruit, and vegetables must be labeled with the country—or countries—they come from. For example, a COOL sticker on a typical package of ground beef might disclose that its contents come from Australia, Mexico, and the United States. Consumer advocates say such labels help shoppers make informed choices, and point to the use of COOL by eight states and 48 of the United States’ trading partners. But the meatpacking and food-processing industries claim the requirement unfairly targets imports and would raise food prices; the Produce Marketing Association claims the program offers “no benefits to consumers.” So far, the food industry has convinced Congress to backtrack: House Republicans have twice postponed COOL’S rollout for meat and produce, leaving diners in the dark until September 2008.