Potential changes to food labels could leave you with mystery meat

You check food labels to find out everything from the calorie count to whether it contains an allergen.  Knowing where your food came from is also a big deal to many, especially when you think about recalls or the potential for food borne illness.  But tracing back where your meal came from could soon be much harder.

You remember mystery meat from the cafeteria.  It was never a favorite but it could be making a comeback.  Todd Tucker with the Global Trade Watch with Public Citizen says, "We're raising the alarm bell for consumers."

That alarm bell is designed to warn you that figuring out where your food comes from could be tougher in the future.  It's concerning for Baltimore mom Candice Gerber.  She says, "I think I was always a label reader."    

Now that she's a mom of two, Gerber says getting information about the food she serves her family is even more important.  She explains, "Just have to keep your eye on the labels.  Things change periodically; just have to be an informed consumer."

In this day and age, being an educated shopper is easier thanks to labels that tell you not only what's in your food but also where it comes from.  But getting everything you need to know about the source isn't a courtesy, it's actually required on some food thanks to "COOL" or country of original labeling.  Tucker says, "Country of origin labeling is one of the most popular consumer policies, not only here in the United States but around the world."

Consumer groups like Washington, D.C. based Public Citizen say those labels, which were added in 2009 to things like meats, nuts, fruits and veggies, protect you.  They're designed to give you the information you need to trace your food to its source in case something goes wrong.  Think mad cow disease.  Tucker says, "This is a constant threat we live under.  Consumers and retailers need to be able to track back the origin of this food so we can know whether the food that's on our dinner table should be subject to a recall."

But that may not be the case in the future, because labels like the ones you see in the grocery store could disappear as soon as next summer.  According to Public Citizen, they may drop first from beef and pork, forcing Gerber to wonder, "What's going on? Why are they relaxing the standards?"

The U.S. isn't relaxing its policies about labeling. Instead, a decision made by the World Trade Organization is what could impact your shopping.  The agency says the U.S. labeling law violates trade rules and the agency's big beef is with beef, although Tucker believes concerns about the label's application could expand, "The precedent here is that if the WTO is willing to rule against beef labels they might well be willing to rule against vegetable labels as well.  It's a slippery slope."

It's a frightening slope for moms like Candice, who want to know all they can about what they feed their family.  She says, "I would be very cautious if it didn't have the country of origin on it and wonder why.  Why can't you tell me where it's coming from?  It would make me wonder who they were trying to protect or whose interest they were really looking out for.  I'm looking out for the interests of my own family."  And she doesn't want to solve a mystery about the food that makes its way to their table.

The United States has the option to appeal the decision made by the World Trade Organization, although it's not known yet that will happen.  Meatpacking groups from the U.S. have urged the Obama administration not to appeal the decision, while consumer and rancher groups think there should be a fight to keep "COOL" in place.

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