Consumers' “right to know” is constantly in question. The labeling of food products is often anything but clear – especially when it comes to imports. Some products will simply say “USA and/or imported” in reference to origination. A Kansas City Star investigative story reveals that one-fifth of our fish oil comes from China but fails to mention any origin information whatsoever on the label. From the article:
The Tariff Act of 1930 requires that imported products, including fish oil, be clearly marked for their “ultimate purchaser” with the last country where the product underwent a “substantial transformation.”
Food and Drug Administration rules say supplement labels should include “a truthful representation of geographical origin.” And Federal Trade Commission rules say they can supplement the Tariff Act when it fails to require the disclosure of countries that process or manufacture products.
But enforcement of import labeling is left up to yet another agency, U.S. Customs and Border Control, which has been letting the importers get around the law. Those companies assert that simply bottling the capsules in the United States “transforms” them into a U.S. product, so they don’t have to be labeled as imports.
It looks like any company could easily “transform” an import into a U.S. product simply because the final packaging process is done inside the country. Clearly there is something to hide. If consumers knew these products originated from China, it’s a good bet sales would decrease given food contamination scandals constantly popping up in that country. Hence the food industry fights any attempt to improve product labeling.
The exact wording or mere presence of words has spurred a number of recent labeling debates. A federal court overruled an Ohio ban on labeling milk as free of artificial hormones, refuting the claim that the label deceived consumers. The FDA held a hearing over labeling requirements for genetically modified salmon, stating that GM labels would only be approved if there were a significant chemical or biological difference, not just because consumers want to know. GAP has also spotlighted the fact that beef infused with carbon monoxide continues to lack appropriate labeling.
It’s evidently hard enough to avoid confusing information on U.S. products in general. When it comes to getting food from outside our borders, the facts get even hazier. The least that food producers and retailers can do is ensure accurate labeling information.
Sarah Damian is Social and New Media Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.