Food Labels’ Quiet Revolution

While implementation of a country-of-origin law languishes, some stores take the initiative.

Melynda Saldenais surveys grocery aisles composing labels that
reveal where food comes from and how it is grown.

Descriptions “like luscious and succulent” leave her cold,
Saldenais said this week in a central Denver store as she reviewed
her literary efforts. But she’d love to be able to write
“China-free” – if a new company initiative pans out.

“Our beef is imported from Australia,” reads the label she wrote
for frozen burgers, “where cattle roam freely on lush green
pastures. They graze the way nature intended on 250 species of
native grasses and herbs.”

Saldenais and her company, the Boulder-based national chain Wild
Oats Markets Inc., along with its future acquirer Whole Foods
Market and other upscale grocers, are responding to a nascent
revolution: Americans are demanding to know the origins of every
tomato, strawberry and steak.

Tainted food scares and increased U.S. reliance on imported food –
from Europe, Mexico, China – drive the growing demands for details
previously kept secret.

Congress ordered country-of-origin labeling in 2002. But the
government, under pressure from mainstream grocers and meatpackers,
has failed to implement the law.

The 2007 farm bill pending before U.S. senators would again order
the government to act.

Meanwhile, Wild Oats and Whole Foods are embracing what customers

They’re using auditors and inspectors to investigate sources of
ingredients in all of the products on their shelves and then
providing detailed labels.

“What we’re seeing in this country is increasing consumer concern
about where and how their food is produced. … The stores that are
labeling now, they see the right end of the law,” said Joe
Mendelson, legal director at the Center for Food Safety, an
advocacy group.

Imports accounted for 14 percent of American food consumption in
2005, compared with 7 percent in the mid-1980s.

Some of the new labeling is somewhat confusing. A Whole Foods
placard at the Cherry Creek store promotes “natural Moroccan
quality” salmon from “Sussex County, New Jersey” that is
“produced by a company committed to sustainable fishing
practices” to ensure “the health of the oceans.”

Whole Foods shoppers “appreciate more, rather than less
information/education,” spokeswoman Ashley Hawkins said.

Saldenais, 39, meets regularly with growers, ranchers and
executives to glean facts and check the accuracy of their claims.

But the origins of some meat, frozen fruit and other foods at Wild
Oats still aren’t labeled as precisely as the country-of-origin
labeling law would require, company officials concede.

The push to reveal origins is leading to closer scrutiny of an
increasingly global supply chain, said Dan Heiges, Wild Oats
director of standards.

Auditors recently exposed a potato-chip maker who had switched to a
cheaper Chinese source of granulated garlic without notifying Wild

Vegetable snacks containing ingredients from China recently were
yanked from shelves after inspectors found traces of salmonella.

Wild Oats now requires suppliers of its private-label products to
certify whether any ingredients come from China or other countries
associated with risks, spokeswoman Sonja Tuitele said. Suppliers
are told to find alternative ingredients in a new initiative aimed
at declaring food “China-free,” Tuitele said.

“We would love to be able to tell our customers that, or at least
identify products we sell that do not have any ingredients from
China,” she said.

“Whether this is possible or not remains to be seen because
ingredients from China are so pervasive in our food supply.”

For years, studies have shown Americans favor precise labeling on
food, for safety and to “buy local.” Last month, a Consumers
Union poll found 92 percent of Americans want country-of-origin
labeling. A Colorado State University study in 2002 found consumers
would even pay more for carefully-labeled food.

“I’m pregnant. It’s really important for me to know that food is
safe and clean,” Tannaz Walker, 31, said while reading a yogurt
label at a Wild Oats east of Boulder recently with her 1-year-old,
Andrew, perched atop her cart.

She picked up a “New York steak” made of “grass-fed” beef,
presumably from the United States. Or was it?

“Well, goodness, it’s a ‘New York steak.’ I hope it’s from the
U.S.,” she said, as her son began to stir in his seat.

Further investigation showed it came from Australia.