New COOL law will lead to better food labeling
This year I kept a close eye on the "mysterious" salmonella scare that was eventually traced to peppers from a farm in - as I suspected - Mexico. And if you had occasion to read my many rants on the subject, you know how I feel about importing produce into the U.S. from countries where most Americans would be advised to steer clear of the tainted water supply. But my fear has been that the "global economy" has doomed the U.S. consumer to having to face the dangers of the Third World whether we like it or not.
Good news: maybe I was wrong. After years of bureaucratic wrangling, the federal government has FINALLY passed a law that will help protect U.S. consumers from overseas goods. It's called the Country- of-Origin Labeling law, or "COOL." And if you ask me, it's very "cool" indeed!
The law requires food retailers to label EVERYTHING with its country of origin - including foods from the U.S. And they mean everything - fresh, frozen, and everything in between. Fish, fowl, meat, and shellfish - be it wild, free-range, or farm-raised. If you can eat it, they have to tell you from whence it came.
You might wonder what took so long to get such an important law passed. Well, it was money and influence, of course. The COOL law for labeling was passed six years ago, but the powerful meatpacking and grocery store lobbies hounded Congress to delay the Department of Agriculture from putting the law into practice. And Congress being Congress, they of course responded to the avalanche of cash from these lobbyists - the safety of the public be damned.
But this law is far from flawless. While it's supported by the Consumers Union, that organization's spokesperson said that "you can still be fooled by the COOL label."
Some large U.S. meat producers are already working on sneaky ways to circumvent the law. Tyson Fresh Meats, for example, argues that it's "too expensive" to divide up their livestock by which cattle comes from which country (though I can't imagine what kind of vast expense this seemingly simple mandate could incur). As a result, they warned their customers that their beef products would be labeled as "Produce of the U.S., Canada, or Mexico." Heck, why not just say, "Product of the Western Hemisphere" and call it a day? Can you imagine the gall? If I were you, I'd steer clear of goods bearing the Tyson label.
Overall, I think the COOL laws are a very good thing. Knowledge is power, and this law puts and incredible amount of power in the hands of U.S. consumers. Suspicious of peppers from Mexico? Just let the label be your guide. What's more, this new system could help to more quickly trace the source of tainted foods in the event of another outbreak.
I do have to admit, though, that my enthusiasm is somewhat tempered by the brittle enforcement laws the USDA has put in place for the new COOL laws. While the law is already in effect, the government will not begin assessing fines for violations of the law until 2009. The fines? A paltry $1,000 penalty. Pardon my cynicism, but I have a hard time believing that a thousand bucks is going to prompt any multi-million dollar food manufacturer (especially one that's already reticent to comply with the law) to change their way of doing business.
The USDA put the right law in place, but as always when it comes to money and business, its enforcement is little more than a half measure.
It seems like a week never passes without a new story about tainted something from China that's killing someone. It's truly amazing how utterly devoid of quality control that country's businesses are. And lately, it seems that nearly every milk product made there has a good-sized dose of the chemical melamine in it.
First, it killed pets when it was put in pet food. Then, when it was put in infant formula it sickened as many as 53,000 Chinese children, killing four of them. Now it's been found in something that's bound to affect a larger portion of the population - chocolate.
That's right, ladies, that comfort food just got a little less comforting
British-based company Cadbury just recalled all of the candy produced at its Beijing plant. The only bright spot is that none of those products were exported to the States. Of course, that's little comfort for those in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia - the countries where the product is sold.It's important to remember this whole melamine catastrophe was no accident. Authorities investigating this growing scandal believe that manufacturers are watering down their milk to stretch their production dollars, and then adding melamine to bolster the protein content, thus masking the fact that the milk content is lower.
Remember what I told you: "Made in China" means "Avoid at All Costs!"