A few years ago, I was about to have a book published. Everything was ready to go when my publisher called with bad news. The agency in charge of the printing process had given the print job to a new company overseas. Originally, we were supposed to print in Korea, but now my book was to be printed in Hong Kong instead. No big deal, one would think. The problem was that we had already put “Printed in Korea” on the back, and now the expensive book covers had to be completely redone, which delayed the date of release and added considerable costs. We had no choice. The law requires that all books available in the United States must indicate clearly and truthfully the name of the country where they were printed – no exceptions.
My publisher was right. And the law is by no means limited to printed materials. Like most people, I have plenty of stuff made in China. My favorite sweater traveled far before it was even finished. According to the label on the inside, it was knitted in Italy and assembled in China before it got shipped over here. Quite a trip – and the entire journey is well documented, although I don’t really care about my sweater’s travel adventures.
Now you can imagine my amazement when I read in the papers that Canada, our friendy neighbor, has engaged in a fierce dispute over American trade rules requiring imported food products to be labeled by country of origin. Especially Canadian hog farmers are up in arms demanding that their government resist any new restrictions on their exports. The regulations in question would actually require American importers to track and document all meat products with regards to country of origin from the time of production to the time of sale, except for purchases by restaurants. That must be too much of a hassle. According to the New York Times (10/13/2009), the Canadians have criticized the proposed rules as too “onerous” for Canadian cattle- and hog farmers to remain competitive in the US. It seems that the meat business is too fragile to bear the costs of putting a stamp on a piglet’s butt identifying it as Canadian. Go figure.
I readily admit that I have no expertise in international trade legislation. But as a dietitian and, more importantly, as a consumer, I think it is not only a good idea but imperative that we all know where our food comes from. This is not about anti-free-trade protectionism or any form of discrimination against other countries. Of course, we all benefit from easy access to goods that come from all around the world. However, as consumers, the choice of what we buy should be ours.
For instance, I am willing to pay considerably more money for fresh wild-caught fish than I would for the farmed varieties. That is a choice I can make because the fish department in my supermarket labels clearly where its products come from and how they were harvested. The same should be expected from all food sellers, regardless of the items they offer.
We will never be able to completely eliminate exposure to unsafe food supplies, many of which originate in this country as well. But we must be allowed to make informed decisions for ourselves and not be deliberately kept in the dark, because it would add to the overhead costs of manufacturers and suppliers.
And while we are at it, I would like to see more detailed information printed on restaurant menus as well. I can’t think why that would be so hard to do. After all, they did it to my favorite sweater.