Dear Reader:  Where did your last meal come from?

Given our globalized food system, this is a difficult question to answer.  


The question of food origin breaks down into several parts.  Do we care where it originated?  Or, do we care where it was processed?  Does where the food comes from impact its quality?  Does a food’s origin impact its safety?  Can we ever know as much about the sources of our food as we would like?

The answers to these questions will vary, but the bottom line is that it is a complex issue.

Reasons to want to know

For some people, knowing where their food comes from is very important. For others, it may not matter at all.  

One reason for promoting labeling has to do with the consumer’s right to know. Consumers have a right to know what ingredients are in a product and where it is from, manufactured, processed, or packed. If consumers want to purchase food that was grown or produced locally, labeling should provide that information. Additionally, labeling should aid consumers if they are seeking products grown or made in a particular area–i.e. for fair trade reasons.

Similar to, but slightly nuanced from, the consumer’s right to know is the goal of consumer protection, which includes health concerns. Labeling of ingredients or country of origin allows a consumer the ability to avoid certain foods they know, or suspect, will trigger a reaction.  

For example, some people experience a bitter taste in their mouths (ranging from a few days to a few weeks) after eating pine nuts. The syndrome is called “pine mouth” and, although the FDA has not linked the phenomenon to any particular kind of pine nut, some studies have connected pine mouth to certain pine nuts grown in China. For those people, having the information about the origin of the pine nuts would allow them to avoid those specific pine nuts.

Labeling is important because it provides information that enables consumers to make more informed decisions about their food choices.

Finding the answer

There are two alternate ways to answer the question of origin: purchasing food directly from the farmer at farmers markets or through community supported agriculture (CSAs); or, relying on certain government laws and regulations that are in place to aid consumers in determining where their food came from–for example, country of origin labeling and labeling requirements for packaged foods.

If the goal is to know where our food comes from, how well do these systems accomplish that goal?

Farmers markets and CSAs

Participating in direct marketing, or face-to-face transactions, is one way consumers can find out where their food comes from.  Farmers markets and CSAs will generally provide a quick and clear answer because a consumer is able to ask the farmer directly about the food being sold.

In a CSA, a person purchases a share of the produce that will be grown on a farm and later, during the growing season, will receive a box of produce from that farm on a weekly basis.

Farmers markets, like CSAs, provide an opportunity for farmers and consumers to interact and for consumers to ask the farmer about the produce they are selling.  An additional source of information comes in the form of market rules and regulations:  farmers markets are governed by a set of rules that dictate where the produce can come from and provide a method of enforcement of those rules.

For example, some farmers markets require the sellers to be the actual growers of the produce.  Despite the challenges in defining a “producer-only” market, in “producer only” markets, all of the food sold will have been grown locally (subject to whatever definition of “local” the market requires).  Other farmers markets do not require the seller to have actually grown the produce.

Is purchasing from a farmers market or CSA an effective way to find out where one’s food comes from?  Generally yes.  The benefit of these face-to-face transactions is that the consumer can inquire of the farmer where the food came from.  Farmers markets and CSAs have an added benefit because customers are usually purchasing whole foods (simpler to trace), rather than prepared products containing a variety of ingredients.

Country of origin labeling

According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), country of origin labeling (COOL) is a “law that requires retailers, such as full-line grocery stores, supermarkets, and club warehouse stores, [to] notify their customers with information regarding the source of certain foods.”  

Foods that must be labeled under the country of origin rules (the “covered commodities”) include various types of meat; wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish; fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables; peanuts, pecans, and macadamia nuts; and ginseng.

If a covered commodity has been processed in certain ways, the packaging does not have to include the country of origin designation.  In order to be excluded from the COOL rules, the process must result in a “change of character” in the covered commodity.  Those processes include cooking (e.g. frying, broiling, grilling, boiling, steaming, baking, roasting), curing (e.g. salt curing, sugar curing, drying), smoking (hot or cold), and restructuring (e.g. emulsifying and extruding).

For example, a whole melon, pineapple, or flat of strawberries will have to be labeled with its country of origin; but, according to COOL Frequently Asked Questions, a fruit cup that contains those fruits (melons, pineapple, and strawberries) is not required to be labeled with the country of origin.  Other examples of “processed food items” are roasted peanuts, breaded chicken tenders, fish sticks, and teriyaki flavored pork loin.

Some products that are imported and may fall outside of the COOL requirements because they are processed are, nonetheless, required to be labeled with a country of origin designation under other international trade rules, such as the Tariff Act of 1930.

The Frequently Asked Questions document explains: “while a bag of frozen peas and carrots is considered a processed food item under the COOL final rule, if the peas and carrots are of foreign origin, the Tariff Act requires that the country of origin be marked on the bag.”

Is country of origin labeling effective?  When it is required, country of origin labeling is very effective in that consumers are provided information about the source of the covered commodities.  But the covered commodities are relatively few, and many covered commodities are processed before sale in such a way as to fall within the processing exemption from the labeling requirements.  Consumers may know where the head of lettuce they purchased is from, but they may not be able to find out where the lettuce, tomatoes, and carrots, in their prepared salad are from.

Labeling requirements

The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) labeling requirements provide another level of information consu
mers can use to determine the source of their food.  Under the FDA rules, food labels are required to include the name of the product, the net amount of product, the ingredients, the nutritional fact panel (with information about calories, etc), and the statement of origin.  

The rules about the ingredient list require that the ingredients be listed in descending order of prominence on the side of the packaging.  

The statement of origin must identify the name and location of the manufacturer, packer, or distributor.  If the location provided is not the manufacturer’s address, the label must clarify what the relationship is between the manufacturer and the location listed–for example, the bottling of a soda can be done “on behalf of” someone else, but that relationship must be disclosed.

It may come as a surprise that there is no requirement that the label include the source of the ingredients.  Perhaps if a product is made in the United States, or consumers associate it with the United States, the question about origin never arises.

The lack of information about ingredient origins, however, may be more surprising when considering the global sourcing of our food supply.  When you read the ingredient list of a packaged food at the grocery store, do you wonder where the ingredients come from?

The Food Studies Project, out of the University of Texas, posted a blog entry recently about “Agriculture and Global Food Procurement.”  The graphic included in the post illustrates two food products–a NutriGrain bar and a loaf of Sara Lee bread–and points out the potential sources of ingredients in each of those products.  

In the NutriGrain bar, the list of sources and ingredients is as follows:

USA: high fructose corn syrup, sugar, wheat flour (produced and milled), whole grain oats, sunflower oil, strawberry puree, cellulose, red dye #40;

China: vitamin and mineral supplements (B1, B2, iron, folic acid), honey;

Philippines: carrageenan;

India: guar gum;

Europe: citric acid;

Denmark: lecithin (soy);

Italy: malic acid; and

Scotland: sodium alginate.

The loaf of Sara Lee bread names ingredients from the United States, China, Vietnam, India, Australia, Russia, Non-USA North American and various South American countries, Switzerland, Netherlands, and Other European countries.

The Sara Lee statement of origin on the label lists Sara Lee’s address in Illinois.

Are the statement of origin and ingredient labeling effective in conveying where the food comes from?  The short answer is most likely no.  The ingredients must be listed on the label, but the source of those ingredients need not be identified.  The statement of origin for these processed foods requires only the name and address of the company that manufactured or processed the food.  If the ingredients are imported, but the food is processed and packed in the United States, the FDA rules apply.

The trouble with this information is…

Information is a good thing for consumers to have, but there are two main obstacles to obtaining this kind of data.

First, it would be a logistical nightmare to include the sources of ingredients on labels.  Labels are already packed with information and are confusing for some consumers.  

Imagine trying to find space on a label for the list of ingredient sources.  Because of the globalized nature of our food supply, the sources of ingredients may change on a daily basis.  For example, have you ever wondered why the ingredient list on a bag of chips says “soybean oil and/or canola oil”?  The company will purchase whichever oil is cheaper on any given day, and must have flexibility in their labels to reflect that reality.

Perhaps companies could include a list of sources on their website.  A website has enough space to list the potential sources of ingredients without crowding the packaging label; this would, however, place a burden on the consumer to inquire on a regular basis.

Second, there are significant international trade issues with our country of origin labeling.  The country of origin labeling laws were challenged in the World Trade Organization back in 2008.  In November 2011, the Dispute Settlement Body ruled unfavorably to the United States as to parts of the law.  In March 2012, the U.S. announced it would appeal the ruling.  It is unclear whether the country-of-origin labeling laws will survive this challenge in the WTO.

Finally, more questions

Knowing where our food comes from probably does matter; but even though we may want that information, the reality is that most of the time we won’t have it.

So in the end we are left with more questions than answers.  Aside from direct transactions with farmers, the existing regulatory schemes do provide some information about where our food comes from, but they are not able to complete the entire picture.

I must ask:  What do you think about your last meal now?

  • Anastasia

    1) Knowing where your meal came from is desirable…for people who are eating hearty meals on a regular basis. There are a few hundred million humans on this planet who are more vitally interested in simply HAVING a good meal on a regular basis, regardless where it comes from. It probably is elitist to get too hung up on “knowing where your food came from” and in thinking you could even make a difference by falling for this salesperson over that one.
    2) You recklessly assume all farmers market, food club and CSA food is produced (lovingly, tediously, deliciously inefficiently) by the rustic character sent out to charm you and sell stuff to you. Faulty assumption. There are literally tons of food sold at farmers markets that is actually being “re-sold” after being purchased from another grower, often a large commercial grower. Policing of these farmers markets is a big noisy farce, a charade to part you from your money. They see to it you don’t actually know squat about what goes on around there.

  • Lucky1

    NO brainer! I pulled last night’s Croaker and Northern Kingfish out of the Atlantic using shrimp for bait. An assortment of veggies including snow peas and Pac Choi came from one of our two freezers– which came from our 2011 garden. The Butternut Squash and garlic came from the root cellar. The sprouts came from our kitchen (sprouter treated with hydrogen peroxide). The vino came fromItaly.

  • Wynann Brownell

    I refuse to buy processed food because of stupid thinking in not telling me the country the food originated from or ALL the ingred. in the product. I WILL ALWAYS BELIEVE THAT THE AMERICAN PEOPLE NEED TO KNOW WHERE ALL OUR FOOD COMES FROM!! Sometimes it’s not easy to get to a Farmers Market or afford the CSA’s. Why do we have to be at the mercy of a group of people telling us ‘it’s good for you’? I prefer to make that choice beacause I know what’s in it, how it was processed and whether it came from the USA or State I live in.

  • MktGoer

    “Anastasia” — agreed that sustainably helping people to sustainably feed themselves is a top worldwide priority —
    But in this day of transparency — it’s only Prudent — Not “Elitist” to want to verify where your food comes from, and How it was produced — whether it’s Melamine-laced food from China — or antibiotic-raised meat from US.
    And it would be really great to see research backing up your assertions of fraud at Farmers Markets — other than the fact you dislike them. Most real Farmers Markets (vs wholesale and retail resellers markets) don’t allow any re-selling, and strongly enforce same — and you can always ask the Market managers as to their policy first.
    You also might be surprised at how effective the policing at Farmers Markets is. Besides on-farm inspections by the market personnel — farmers themselves have extensive networks that keep an eye on each other and are very effective at rooting out fraudulent competitors.
    Meanwhile, the real “charade to part you from your money” lies behind the thousands of brand names in the supermarket that never identify they’re produced by the same handful of companies.

  • Domino

    It is important to me to know where the food I buy comes from. Mainly because some countries have questionable sanitary and food safety practices. Also, I prefer to sponsor our economy over someone elses. There is something wrong when you find that almost all products come from foreign countries.

  • gkent

    Yes, there might be limited space on food products’ labels, but there’s no limit to the information that could be placed on the products’ websites. Perhaps we could have rules for conveying information on both labels and websites.
    To give a concrete example, I don’t need to see the detailed description and the source of the ingredients on the labels on McDonald’s “Taro” Pie. But I should be able to get that information from a website on that particular product.
    Can one tell me what is in that product, and where it comes from?

  • Fair Play, even by foodies
  • George Kent

    Yes, there might be limited space on food products’ labels, but there’s no limit to the information that could be placed on the products’ websites. Perhaps we could have rules for conveying information on both labels and websites.
    To give a concrete example, I don’t need to see the detailed description and the source of the ingredients on the labels on McDonald’s “Taro” Pie. But I should be able to get that information from a website on that particular product.
    Can one tell me what is in that product, and where it comes from?

  • clair

    Did you know All organic and Farmers Market farmers are rip-off artists?
    There’s always “proof” from The Ad Hominem Arguer — who often has to rely on Argument By Generalization:
    i.e. “drawing a broad conclusion from a small number of perhaps unrepresentative cases…”

  • outraged

    Has anyone noticed lately that some labeling just says “distributed by – “. What does that mean? Is the food imported and then processed? I want to know the country of origin and see the FDA Inspection stamp.

  • Sonia Alvarez

    Damn right I want to know where my food’s coming from, especially liquids and produce as improper pasteurization/bad water purification and dirty farming practices can result in amoebas and worms. I spent nearly 14 years living Latin America and paid the price. I would like to feel at ease when grocery shopping here. Clean food is what the good ‘ol U S of A is known for. Let’s keep it that way!

  • Outraged also

    Recently, I was unable to determine who; caught, processed, and canned our weekly Tuna Fish. We here in the U.S. have a great deal of native Tuna available in the ocean just outside our doors. It all seems to be shipped to Japan for Sushi or steak use. Where does the tuna in a can come from ? Try and find out ! I have spent l have spent a long time reading the 2 pt type, pale blue ink, on silver paper, under the glaring, harsh lights of three of our local Super Markets without being able to find out who what and where. I just read that if a foreign entity “substantially changes” the product by cooking etc. they don’t have to report that they caught it in a polluted river in China etc. Is this what we pay taxes for? I smell Nancy Pelosi or something . . . . .

  • Kim Hanna

    I contacted Burnette Foods about Mother’s Maid black beans to find out where they originate from. They refused to tell me where they are from. They said from Michigan but if that was so, they would put that on the label I’m sure. So we cannot even get a straight answer from an USA canning company.