Open your refrigerator and take a look around. Do you know where the apples in the crisper came from? New Hampshire, or New Zealand? Did you know that the package of ground beef in your freezer may contain animal parts from as many as 20 different countries?
We stamp 'Made in the USA' on blue jeans, diapers, and cars, but most Americans have no clue where their food was grown. That could change if Congress passes -- and enforces -- a rule in the 2007 Farm Bill called Country of Origin Labeling, or COOL.
In 2002, after considerable lobbying efforts from sustainable-farming advocates, Congress passed COOL legislation. The rule required labels on beef, lamb, pork, fish, peanuts, and perishable agricultural commodities by September 2004. But, under pressure from agribusiness, Congress has delayed implementation again and again.
Activists are going to push for COOL again in 2007, but they are likely to see fierce opposition from industry groups. John Tyson, CEO of Tyson Foods, has spoken out publicly against COOL, saying implementing the rule would be costly and would 'penalize' U.S. producers and retailers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture determined that COOL would cost the food industry almost $2 billion in paperwork in the first year of implementation -- a figure that the General Accounting Office found 'questionable and not well supported.'
Companies that oppose COOL are probably also concerned about how labeling might affect their public images and sales. The meat industry has acknowledged that U.S. consumers might avoid buying meat from other countries, fearing that it would be less safe.
'If you're a large corporation, you're concerned about COOL because it begins to pull the veil back on how you do business,' says Brian Snyder of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. Food corporations are depending more and more on foreign production, which is cheaper and, some believe, of questionable quality.
Tyson Foods, along with companies like Cargill and industry groups such as the National Cattlemen's Association and the National Pork Producers Council, have joined forces and hired a prominent Washington lobbying firm, Lesher & Russell, with the goal of killing labeling rules.
Despite industry resistance, Snyder and others believe that public support gives COOL a shot at being included in the 2007 Farm Bill. 'People actually do care where their food is produced, especially when you have mad cow disease, avian flu, and other nutritional concerns out there,' Snyder says. 'The public might react if they see where food is coming from, and that is scary to the corporate food system.'