Included in the 2002 Farm Bill is a rule requiring meat, fish, and perishable commodities like fresh fruits and vegetables be labeled according to the country where they were raised or grown. Known officially as Country of Origin Labeling, or COOL, the idea was to let U.S. consumers make a choice in the grocery store aisle. Major objections came from cattle producers and supermarket owners over the cost of record keeping and label printing. In response, the President signed two laws which have changed COOL from a mandatory activity into a voluntary one. With other priorities taking precedence on their agendas, many legislators have been willing to leave the matter unchallenged until the recent wave of tainted Chinese imports.
In the wake of last weeks partial ban on seafood from China, Democrat Senator Charles Schumer of New York, is urging the FDA implement new rules requiring all food, vitamin and cosmetic companies to list the origin of all ingredients that come from outside the United States. In 2007, products manufactured in China have accounted for more than 60 percent of the Consumer Product Safety Commission's 178 recalls.
From contaminated wheat gluten, which was responsible for the deaths of at least 16 pets, to lead paint on children's toys, Schumer claims "The fact that every week we have to frantically pull Chinese goods off store shelves shows that our safeguards are failing." Besides mandatory labeling of imports, Schumer is calling for the creation of an Import Czar that would monitor all federal agencies responsible for assuring consumer safety of imported goods.
A labeling law was enacted as part of the 2002 farm bill, but enforcement of the law has floundered. Proponents of country of origin labeling believe that consumers would be more likely to choose products from the United States over imported items.
The appeal extends beyond supporting American farmers to questioning the safety of food from other countries. Opponents believe labeling is too expensive and is simply a means for U.S. cattlemen and farmers and cattlemen to block cheaper imports.
As one of the largest importers of American grain, China also has a say in the food fight. The battle is escalating even as U.S. officials are pressuring China to lift a ban on American beef imports.