Consumers have a right to know where their food comes from

Nobody seemed to care where their pet treats came from until dogs started dropping dead from eating tainted food from China.  When it was all over, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had received 5,600 complaints from consumers about their pets getting sick and, sadly, about 1,000 of them perished.  

Incidents like this aren’t limited to just man’s best friend either.  Remember the Chinese melamine added to infant formula? Or the salmonella outbreak in 2008 traced back to Mexican produce? That led to more than 1,300 food poisoning cases in 43 states.

Thankfully, Congress understood that consumers have a right to know where their pet food, and their own food, comes from, and in 2008 passed a law known as Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL). 

In short, COOL says that muscle cuts of meat, and some fruits and vegetables, must be labeled with the country’s name where it was produced.   It doesn’t restrict imports; it simply gives grocery shoppers information to make purchasing decisions that are right for their families.  If a family prefers Vietnamese catfish or Mexican meatloaf, there will be available options.  If not, the family can choose locally grown U.S. alternatives.

And consumers love being empowered.  A May 2013 public opinion poll showed more than 90 percent of consumers support COOL.  

Of course, not everyone is a fan.  Foreign countries fear that informed U.S. consumers will favor homegrown products.  And multinational corporations that crave cheap imports for their products oppose the cost of labeling. They also prefer to pass off foreign meat as though it is from American ranchers.

Those special interests are now attempting to use their considerable resources, and the court system, to water down COOL.  However, standing in their way are farm, rural, faith, environmental, labor, farm worker and consumer groups that are fighting to make sure “Made in America” still means something.

Just last week, these consumer advocates prevailed when the District Court of Appeals handed multinational meat packers a stinging defeat.  By a 9 to 2 majority, the panel upheld an earlier court ruling to deny a request to halt enforcement of the law.

Unfortunately, proponents of customer ignorance aren’t limiting their battle to the U.S. court system, which has sided with consumers three times now and said the government can require factual information to be included on a label.  Foreign countries and their big business partners are also pushing international courts at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to intervene.

The same WTO that helped facilitate lopsided trade deals and outsource U.S. manufacturing jobs will soon rule on what information U.S. grocery shoppers can receive.  If they rule against American rights, then they can impose sanctions designed to damage our economy unless the U.S. kowtows to their wishes.

Simultaneously, powerful lobbying groups are bankrolling efforts to “reform” COOL in Congress, and by reform, they mean gut it.  Instead of “Born, Raised and Harvested in the U.S.,” they’re pushing for “Made in North America” labels so consumers can’t differentiate between products of Mexico, Canada or the United States. What’s next? “Made on Earth,” labels?

All this effort and the small fortune being spent to undermine a simple food label makes you wonder what they are trying to hide. 

Regardless, the multinationals and their friends seem willing to put profits ahead of national pride in this case, even if America’s farmers and the families they help feed haven’t lost sight of what is really important. 

Here’s hoping the decision makers on every front of this COOL assault have the same dose of common sense and don’t strip people of their right to know where their food originated.

America has the safest, best homegrown food supply in the world.  Let’s be proud, not ashamed, of that accomplishment.

Johnson is president of National Farmers Union.

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