In the wake of the contaminated Chinese food scare, there have been calls to require "country of origin" labels on food. While on its face, the prospect of more information sounds appealing, it would actually be a mistake to require country of origin labeling. It's not where your food is from that matters, it's what's in it.
In a global economy, Americans should expect that their food comes from around the world. This is good for consumers, since a global food supply tends to keep quality up and prices down, while providing a wide variety of choices. Food safety is a legitimate concern, but country of origin labels will do nothing to make food safer.
We should fund the Food and Drug Administration at a level that supports an adequate team of inspectors. While food imports continue to increase, the number of inspectors is not keeping pace. But simply adding a "warning" label that indicates the food came from oversees does not give consumers useful information. For instance, if a product is labeled from China, does that mean you should wash it better? Cook it longer? No.
We should make sure all our food is properly washed and properly prepared, regardless of it source. The most recent incidents of foodborne illness came from domestic sources. Last week's Chicago food festival saw hundreds sickened from salmonella-contaminated hummus. And the big spinach scare last fall came from domestically grown greens. In fact, despite all the press coverage, not one person became ill as a result of the China food scare.
We should use all available means, including food irradiation to make sure that potential pathogens are not introduced into our food supply. Country of origin labeling would simply give the false impression that filtering-by-country is the most reliable way of gauging safety. Further, since one product may have ingredients from many different countries, some manufactured foods will have labels that look like a roll call at the United Nations. This will only further confuse consumers.
Country of origin labeling is protectionism disguised as a food safety law. Recall the time Japan banned U.S. beef simply because one cow that tested positive for mad cow disease found its way into the U.S. from Canada. By stigmatizing imported foods, we are bound to start a foreign food fight that will hurt U.S. farmers who rely on open global markets as well as U.S. consumers who rely on safe imported foods from around the world.
Jeff Stier is an associate director of the American Council on Science and Health.