Expect origin labels on more food

Starting this week, shoppers will see more foods labeled with country of origin. It's a law years in the making but timely, as China's milk scandal and recent salmonella-tainted Mexican peppers prompt concern over the safety of imported foods.

But hold the import-bashing: Many recent outbreaks have come from U.S.-produced foods, like spinach from California.

Until now, shoppers have had little clue where many everyday foods – meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, certain nuts – originate. The COOL law, for country-of-origin labeling, changes that.

Those who want to buy local – or who prefer, say, Chilean grapes – can more easily exercise purchasing power. Those worried about lax regulations in certain countries can avoid those imports. And next time tomatoes are suspected of food poisoning, consumers may be able to report they bought only ones grown in a certain region, speeding the probe.

“We do see it as an important step on the road to a more comprehensive system for tracing food items” during outbreaks, says Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The law requires that retailers notify customers of the country of origin – including the U.S. – of raw beef, veal, lamb, pork, chicken, goat, wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish, fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, peanuts, pecans, macadamia nuts and whole ginseng.

Where? Anywhere it fits. The rubber band around asparagus; the plastic wrap on ground beef; the little sticker on an apple. If a food isn't normally sold in packaging – such as a bin of fresh green beans – the store must post a sign.

The labels aren't for processed foods, so no label if a food is cooked, or part of a bigger dish or otherwise substantially changed. Plain raw chicken must be labeled but not breaded chicken tenders. Raw pork chops are labeled, but not ham or bacon. Fresh or frozen peas get labeled, but not canned peas. Raw shelled pecans, but not a trail mix.