Another round in the continuing battle over labeling food has come: the World Trade Organization is scheduled to rule again affirmatively on Canadian and Mexican complaints that U.S. laws requiring a label of origin are discriminatory. The neighbors are complaining such labeling is needlessly expensive, flies in the face of the heavy traffic back and forth of livestock at different stages of rearing and marketing, and gives American producers unfair advantage contrary to North American trade pacts. Anticipating billions in WTO awards on these WTO complaints, the House of Representatives has voted to remove country of origin requirements on beef, pork and chicken. Senate hearings are scheduled next week to take up possible legislation there.
It is more than ironic that at about the same time, a new food scandal – there is almost one a week – has hit [even] the controlled media in China. Chinese customs have seized around 3 billion yuan ($483 million) worth of of smuggled meat, some of it more than 40 years old and rotting.
Chinese food processing, unfortunately, figures even in the exceedingly complicated argument over how to label what the American housewife buys in her supermarket. But two aspects of the arguments are all too obvious. Processed foods do not require country of origin labeling, particularly if another process like repackaging occurs in the U.S. With imports of processed foods rising at a steady rate, including those from China, there has to be concern that much of this growth originates in China. Again the details get complicated: the fact that Alaskan salmon are caught, sent to China for deboning, and then introduced into the American market boggles the mind!
Given the almost limitless pollution of the Chinese environment – official statements admit more than half China’s water is polluted, for example – these imports would appear to be a disaster only waiting to happen. American importers, of course, insist that their standards are being met in any Chinese processing.
But an earlier episode is worth recalling. From March 2007 renal failure in pets was traced to components from a Chinese company in American pet food, resulting in a minimum of 3600 deaths by April 11. [But since there is no central reporting of animal deaths, it is estimated in some quarters that the actual casualties could have been in the thousands.]
At that time, Chinese protein exports to the U.S. for human consumption was brought under inspection. And on May 1, officials from the Food Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture said between 2.5 and 3 million people in the United States had consumed chickens that had consumed feed containing contaminated vegetable protein from China. But on May 7, United States food safety officials were willing to assure the public that “There is very low risk to human health from consuming meat from hogs and chickens known to have been fed animal feed supplemented with pet food scraps that contained melamine and melamine-related compounds”
Meanwhile, Chinese levels of pollution have continued to rise, with weekly reporting even in the controlled media of food contamination scandals. The general problem of air, water and ground pollution is finally being addressed by the Beijing government, however effectively remains to be seen.
Therefore, any retreat from labeling of country of origin, however justified for economic reasons, is of concern. And, in fact, additional labeling with the country of origin of all foodstuffs, raw or processed, would seem to be the only way at the moment to help a careful consumer protecting his or her family.