Sunday, June 10, 2007

Wouldn't COOL labeling be Cool? [a.k.a. trying to find out where the ingredients are from]

Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) has become quite a big topic in recent months.

Although I usually criticize the Media's tendency to jump on each other's bandwagons, sometimes it works in the consumer's favor. Take this recent publicity -- just in the psat month -- regarding the safety of imported food, particularly from China. Now that the media has it in their teeth, you can't turn around without reading some new, horrific article on the topic: China Food Fears go from Pets to Public, China to Start Mobile Food Testing, China probes tainted toothpaste, US checks toothpaste for toxins, Killer Banana Rumor Grips China, Fixing the Food Fiasco, Wary of Food Safety, China Consumers shop with care, Pet Food scare raises concerns about food safety.

After reading all of this, the first question on any rational person's mind is: where is the stuff I am eating grown? While it is easy to look at a clothes label to see where it was made, and about 70% of the fresh produce in stores now is COOL, pre-packaged food is not-so-cool.

Of course all of this publicity is forcing major food packagers and distributors to take notice, and the more of us who write to our retailers and wholesalers, demanding better COOL and more local food, the more that will happen. Some are calling for tighter government controls; I am not sure that this is the solution. Government controls tend to add bureaucracy and cost without much end result. Consumer-driven movements can often have better effects. i.e. If all consumers decide that they want food grown in their local country (e.g. the USA) and they all flock to buy from Company A who provides this, then Companies B, C, and D will soon follow suite.

In the spirit of buying locally for environmental, economic, and now safety reasons, I wrote to four of my favorite brands to (try to) find out how many ingredients in their food products are grown in the USA.

Here is what I basically sent to each of them:

The recent coverage of safety and health issues in food products imported into the USA has prompted me to start questioning some of my favorite products, as there is no country-of-origin labeling on much of anything except fresh produce at this point.
-- Where do your ingredients come from? All USA suppliers, mostly USA suppliers, or mostly overseas?
-- Would it be possible for you to add this information to your labeling?
-- Would you consider adding a "100% USA-grown" line of products? I know that many of us out here would pay more for 100% USA-grown over imported foods. It supports our own farmers, we know our own safety standards and regulations, and it is a good anti-terrorism move (i.e. it's going to be easy for a terrorist in a foreign country to tamper with ingredients than it would be here in the USA, and there would be little way of tracking down the source of the issue)

And here are the four responses that I got, in order from the ones who made me the happiest to the responses that didn't make me as happy:


Best response, by far. These are real people, just as concerned as I am about what in the world is going into our food.

Thank you for your email and your concerns. What's coming out of China is really scary.
All of our potatoes and sweet potatoes are from the good ole USA, specifically the eastern seaboard, from Florida up to NY. Our oil is also domestically produced. Occasionally, we'll get peanut oil from Argentina and that's when there's a shortage here.
The sunflower oil is out of North Dakota.

After the stories about the tainted dog food and some other horrifying things I heard on the radio about food stuffs arriving from China, I also am planning on further researching the origin of the ingredients in our seasonings. If you're interested, I should have a list in a month.

Please know that we share your concerns and also are committed to using the best ingredients grown in the USA.

Again, thanks for your email and feedback.


Although it took them a few sentences to get to the point, they say that all of their ingredients are made/grown in the USA, so hurrah! I'll keep munching on my Go LEAN! crunch.

Thank you for contacting us with your concerns regarding the safety of the ingredients used in our products.

We understand your concerns over the safety of your food, especially in light of the recent events. We want to assure you that we have complete supplier approval programs. All of our suppliers must meet stringent requirements which include third party audits, food safety and compliance to all applicable regulations. All of our ingredients are from the United States.

Thank you again for taking the time to e-mail us.


They CLEARLY spent a lot of time crafting a response to this type of question. To be fair, it would in fact be nearly impossible to find some things like bananas in this country. But I am somewhat dismayed by the strawberries coming from China. Still, I am happy with the depth and honesty of the response.

Thank you for taking the time to contact us. We’re always happy to get
comments and questions from our yogurt lovers and are grateful when someone
takes the time to let us know what they think of our Company and products.


We source over 200 million lbs of organic ingredients annually – milk,
fruit, sweeteners, grains, spices, etc. Those ingredients annually support
over 50,000 acres of organic production. We always source locally in the US
first. Some ingredients such as organic cocoa, banana, and vanilla do not
grow in the US so we import them. Only a small amount of organic sugar is
grown in the US, so virtually all organic food companies import organic

How do we ensure other countries’ ingredients meet US organic standards? By
USDA law any organic ingredient we use in our products must meet the US
standards. That means the products must be grown and processed under the
same practices required in the US and inspected and certified by a
certifier who is accredited by the USDA.

Due to the lack of US supply, in 2005 and 2006, we bought strawberries from
a Chinese source. Because of concerns regarding cultural differences in
business practices between China and USA, we chose to take our due
diligence beyond the existing quality systems that we have in place or are
required by statute, and implemented additional audits and inspections. Our
concerns were three-fold: quality, social and organic integrity. We had 3
separate inspection agencies perform audits ---one in each area ---so that
we could have additional assurances that we are getting a product that we
could feel confident met our standards. Although the strawberries were
already certified by a USDA accredited certifier, we hired our own USDA
accredited certifier and had them perform a separate additional inspection,
including a surprise inspection. The experience was very positive, and we
are confident that the operation is in compliance with USDA organic
regulations. From a quality perspective the results were excellent. Because
they’d already been selling to an international clientele, they had very
high quality standards. The social audit was also a very positive
experience for our company as well as the supplier. While we did find some
minor non-compliance with Chinese law (such as limiting bathroom breaks)
there were no egregious violations such as child or slave labor or unsafe
work conditions. The supplier welcomed the feedback as no customers had
previously instituted such a rigorous review of social conditions, and has
rectified the violations. We are proud that we played a role in improving
worker conditions as part of the review process.

Our imports of organic ingredients that could otherwise be grown in the US,
make up less than 2% of our organic ingredient purchases. In other words,
98% of the ingredients that could be grown in the US, we buy here in the
U.S. Only 2% are bought from outside the U.S.

Why do we sometimes look elsewhere when items can be grown in the U.S.?

1) They are not available.

2) They may in fact be geographically closer to us than most US
suppliers. An example is Quebec-grown organic blueberries, which account
for one-third of our imported ingredients, and are close to our region (New

3) We cannot be dependent on one geographic area for all of our
fruit needs. If there were a freeze in California where we buy organic
strawberries, and that was our single source, we would not be able to make
strawberry yogurt for a year. We intentionally work with growers in
multiple geographic areas to reduce our risk.

We greatly appreciate the concern and passion that people have for these
important issues of organic and social integrity. We do our best to set the
highest standard and act in an ethical manner.


The folks at Stonyfield Farm


This response makes me the least happy. It doesn't really tell me anything more than I already knew; some of the vegetables are grown here, some are grown other places. And for me, the consumer, there is no way to pick them apart. Also, I bet if I had written the pet food producers, prior to the recent issues, they would have said the SAME THING. i.e. We have strict quality control, blah-blah-blah, it's all safe no matter where it comes from, blah-blah-blah. Talk is cheap.

Thanks for visiting our Del Monte website and for your email. We appreciate the opportunity to respond.

Most of our products are produced in the United States; however, due to the tremendous amounts of products produced, we sometimes have to purchase fruits and vegetables outside the United States in order to have a continuing supply to offer our consumers. To provide the very freshest product possible, this must be harvested and packed immediately. This process will continue to provide our consumers the finest quality products available.

Regardless of the country of origin, Del Monte's strict U.S. quality and operations standards apply. Our pesticide practices, water purity standards, sanitation requirements, finished product quality, and all other standards and procedures apply equally to our U.S. and non-U.S. products. There is no difference in the "Del Monte Way" just because a product may be produced outside the United States.

In compliance with all FDA rules and regulations, our labels state when a product is produced outside the US.

I hope this information is helpful.

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