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Origin of species

There should be a law that requires all meats, seafood, fruits and vegetables sold at the grocery store to carry a label identifying the country where they were produced. After the mad cow scare involving livestock imported from Canada and the hepatitis A outbreak linked to Mexican onions, American consumers would find that information useful.

Actually, there is such a law and it would have required country-of-origin labeling beginning Sept. 30 _ except an amendment delaying implementation for two years was slipped into the $373-billion spending bill passed by the Senate on Thursday. So American consumers won't be getting the information they need to make informed choices at the grocery store.

The delay was favored by the meat industry and food retailers and supported by the Bush administration. Labeling is extremely popular with the American public, however, so the law had to be attacked indirectly, with an amendment buried in a must-pass appropriations bill.

Arguments used to fight the labeling law are misguided, if not ludicrous. Some of the largest food producers _ including the American Meat Institute and Grocery Manufacturers of America _ claim the labeling would be expensive. They say it is little more than a marketing ploy for domestically produced commodities, and the National Pork Producers Council went so far as to call labels "no more than a political slogan."

That isn't the experience in Florida, which has had a limited version of the labeling law for more than two decades. State law requires retail grocers to inform customers with signs or labels of fruits, vegetables, honey and farm-raised fish produced outside the country. American products need not be labeled, and meat and seafood caught in the wild are not included.

Compliance among grocers runs to 98 percent and the cost of signage has not been an issue, said Leslie Palmer, an administrator with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which supports the national labeling law along with Florida farm groups (and their counterparts throughout the nation). While the law might give American farmers a boost in the marketplace, that is not its primary purpose.

Labels are intended to inform the public and to promote food safety. "Now is the worst possible time to be delaying the law that would give consumers the choices they need," Palmer said.

The law would actually help food producers respond to scares, Palmer explained. Potentially tainted food could be more easily identified and removed from shelves, and consumers would still have alternatives. Last year, when green onions from Mexico were found to be tainted with hepatitis A, shoppers stopped buying onions because they couldn't know their origin, which hurt all onion farmers.

Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who led the fight in favor of the labeling law, said he would try to erase the delay in an upcoming appropriations bill. All Americans should support that effort and demand the right to know what they are eating.

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