Sunday, May 20, 2007

It's Time For America To Legislate Mandatory Country Of Origin Labels

Yesterday's New York Times brought some gruesome news: the toxic Chinese fake-glycerin (diethylene glycol, also known as antifreeze) that I wrote about earlier this month has turned up in Panama--in toothpaste.

Diethylene glycol, a poisonous ingredient in some antifreeze, has been found in 6,000 tubes of toothpaste in Panama, and customs officials there said yesterday that the product appeared to have originated in China.

“Our preliminary information is that it came from China, but we don’t know that with certainty yet,” said Daniel Delgado Diamante, Panama’s director of customs. “We are still checking all the possible imports to see if there could be other shipments.”

Some of the toothpaste, which arrived several months ago in the free trade zone next to the Panama Canal, was re-exported to the Dominican Republic in seven shipments, customs officials said. A newspaper in Australia reported yesterday that one brand of the toothpaste had been found on supermarket shelves there and had been recalled.

Diethylene glycol is the same poison that the Panamanian government inadvertently mixed into cold medicine last year, killing at least 100 people. Records show that in that episode the poison, falsely labeled as glycerin, a harmless syrup, also originated in China.

There is no evidence that the tainted toothpaste is in the United States, according to American government officials.

There is no evidence that the tainted toothpaste is in the United States. Nonetheless, after the food adulteration disaster of recent months during which thousands of pets died and many Americans quite rightly began to consider--some for the first time--that their own food might not be as safe to consume as they imagined, this sort of disturbing news causes one to re-think every grocery-store purchase. And while I am an avid label-reader myself, I'll be the first to agree that we are not all organic chemists accustomed to remembering--and then ferreting out--seventeen-syllable chemical names on labels. It isn't realistic, or even fair, to expect all consumers to stand there in our grocery and drug store aisles, reading paragraph after paragraph of minuscule type, trying to determine if this toothpaste or that cough syrup might kill our families. Not only that, it wouldn't matter, in many cases, if we did: the ingredients may say one thing (i.e. glycerin), but the contents could contain something else entirely--like poisonous antifreeze.

The FDA has proven ineffective in protecting our food supply, admitting they inspect less than 2% of imported foods and food ingredients. So, I'm recommending--urgently--that we all pressure our representatives in government to push COOL (Country Of Origin Labeling) legislation into law as quickly as possible. Let consumers decide if we're willing to trust the product safety policies of countries halfway around the world--countries that saturate farmed shrimp with dangerous antibiotics and spike their animal feed (and possibly grain meant for human consumption, too) with ground up melamine scrap and prohibit their citizens from accessing the news and information we in the States take for granted. You know, free market and all.

Unsurprisingly, an overwhelming majority of Americans--82%--support COOL. And equally unsurprisingly, many of the big players are against it, stating that it would be far too onerous and expensive for them to print a few words or sentences on labels and let us know the national origin(s) of what went into our cereals and sinus medicines:

Although polls indicate that the overwhelming majority – 82 percent – of Americans want to know where our food is coming from, Big Food and Washington bureaucrats have united to deny us this right.

Lobbyists for corporate agribusiness such as the American Farm Bureau; giant food manufacturers such as Cargill, Smithfield and Con-Agra; and supermarket chains have handed over millions of dollars to an industry-indentured Congress to keep us in the dark about the “country of origin” of the hundreds of billions of dollars of foods we buy every year in supermarkets or consume in restaurants.

Shocked by media reports that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspects only 1 percent of all imported food shipments, increasing numbers of health-minded consumers have complained to their elected public officials. They are demanding that the government increase food-safety inspections – which unfortunately have been reduced by nearly 50 percent under the Bush administration – and require mandatory country of origin labels for foods.

With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention admitting that Americans suffer from more than 78 million cases of food poisoning every year, resulting in 5,000 deaths and 200,000 hospitalizations, food safety and lax government regulation have become an important issue for many consumers.

Bear in mind that some of these same American interests who also export to Europe somehow manage to squeeze a few words about their products' origins in between New And Improved! and Now More Chocolate-y Than Ever when labeling goods meant for those destinations, since country-of-origin labels are required by law in EU countries and elsewhere around the world:

Europe and most other industrialized nations require mandatory country of origin labels on food. Reacting to the long-standing concerns of their constituents, reflected in polls indicating that 80 percent of Americans want country of origin food labels, Congress finally incorporated such labels into the 2002 Farm Bill, supposedly to go into effect in September 2004.

Unfortunately, corporate agribusiness and supermarket chains bribed an ethically impaired Congress with millions of dollars in campaign contributions to block implementation of the labels.

It's a matter of greed economics more than anything else--they're afraid that if American consumers find out how many of their purchases contain ingredients from countries with spotty safety records, many if not most of us will start getting uppity, refusing to buy products and foodstuffs that are packed with cheap and potentially dangerous fillers and chemicals, and take our dollars elsewhere, spending them on products that offer what we want, without the rubbish we don't want. So they bribe lobby our congresspeople (emphasis mine):

Deep pockets influenced Washington as industry lobbyists blocked COOL, with the exception of seafood. Lobbying expenditures by groups that opposed COOL between 2000 and 2004 include American Farm Bureau Federation: $11,840,000, and Wal-Mart: $2,760,000. The Goliaths of Agribusiness thus undercut our right to know the source of our food, despite 82 percent consumer support for the idea. Along with over 200 organizations, the National Family Farm Coalition sent a letter to Congress urging our elected officials to finally implement COOL as of September 2007 and end the backdoor delays. So while my T-shirt tag informs me it was from Bangladesh, darned if I can place the hamburger sizzling on my grill.

I don't mean to sound melodramatic; rather, I'm trying to say all this with the kind of passion and emphasis required to bring about meaningful change: the elections of 2008 offer America unprecedented potential to effect real, positive change for us all--in this as well as many respects. Regardless of our individual politics, we're all consumers of products that, increasingly, come from sources around the globe. As such, it's absolutely vital that we use our voices and votes, and do so in numbers large enough to overwhelm the deep-pocketed interests who currently dictate policy.

Tell Congress in no uncertain terms that you, the American consumer and voter, want Country Of Origin Labels (COOL) legislation enacted immediately. You can contact members of the U.S. Senate here, and the House of Representatives here.

Also at Shakesville and Ezra's place.

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