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Give consumers the power to choose

By By Johnny Mack Morrow
If you've been watching the news lately, it's likely that you noticed the steady stream of recalls on foreign made products, and the problem seems to be growing.
Dozens of toys made in China have been found with lead paint, something that has been banned in the United States for a generation. Recently, a popular children's item was recalled for containing substances that turn into a very dangerous drug when swallowed. We scan the papers and watch the news for the next product to be recalled, worried about the safety of our children and grandchildren.
The problem with imported goods places a big spotlight on the safety of imported food. More and more items on our grocery shelves come from beyond our borders. A question can be asked that if we are having so much trouble with seemingly harmless items like toys, what about the things we eat?
Alabama has been leading the fight nationally on safety of food produced overseas. Our state was one of the first in the country to ban catfish imported from Vietnam and China. Tests at the state agriculture department showed that farmers in those countries were using antibiotics and other products that are banned in America to raise their fish.
Certain substances are banned, and farmers are prohibited from using certain chemicals that have been shown to hurt human health. If our farmers can't use them, then we shouldn't import produce from places where farmers can.
One reason that there have been massive recalls of toys is that federal inspectors cannot look at every item being imported. The Consumer Product Safety Commission doesn't have the personnel or the direction to inspect and review the thousands of products coming into the nation's ports.
A similar problem exists with federal food inspectors. There are only so many inspectors at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. With the increase on food imports, less and less of the foodstuffs coming from other countries can be tested.
What we need to do is give more power to consumers when it comes to their food.
Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture Ron Sparks has championed the idea of labeling every food product with its country of origin. It is a simple idea. When you go to the produce section of the store you should be able to know where that food comes from, and you can make an informed choice about what you buy. Country of origin labeling, known as COOL, has been a topic of debate in Congress recently.
This kind of labeling makes sense. For decades it has been the law that retail imports be labeled so you know where your clothes or electronics are made, so why not apply that to what we eat?
When you go to the loading dock of a market or a wholesaler, the country of origin is stamped on the boxes and cartons of just about everything. Yet when you get to the shelves and bins where we buy these products, you often don't see any identification anywhere. I think there is little doubt that labeling will help Alabama farmers. What do you think most Americans would rather buy, a tomato grown in the United States right here on our state's farms, or one from China?
Agriculture is a mainstay of the Alabama economy–the beef, chicken and peanuts we grow here will find more buyers when consumers across the county know they were grown in the U.S., and not overseas. It may make a little more work for stores and food processors to put country names next to products, but if we can do it for most things, we should do it for food too. Congress should fully implement country of origin labeling; it will be good for consumers and good for our state.
Johnny Mack Morrow is a state representative for Franklin County.