Where's It from?

By Jeremy Quittner

Consumers who want to know just where the fruit or ground beef they're buying came from will soon be getting answers. So-called country of origin labeling was one of the provisions of the Farm Security & Rural Investment Act of 2002. It covers only fish, beef, pork, lamb, perishable agricultural products, and peanuts. (The law does not include processed foods and those comprising multiple ingredients.) But because of political pressures, and the efforts of some business lobbyists, only fish and shellfish have carried written labels since 2004. The other covered categories will carry them beginning Sept. 30, 2008.

The law applies to food distributors, retailers, and wholesalers. To qualify for Made in the U.S. status, the products must be born, raised, slaughtered, and grown in the U.S.

Consumers seem to like the idea. Some 92% favor country of origin labeling, according to a Consumers Union poll in June. "This is a basic consumer right-to-know issue," says Michael K. Hansen, a senior scientist on food safety for CU. Billy Cox, a spokesman for the U.S. Agriculture Dept.'s Agricultural Marketing Service in Washington, D.C., agrees: "The country is more aware of things coming in from other countries, especially agricultural products."

Some business groups say the law is too onerous. Sean McBride, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Assn., cites a 2003 Agriculture Dept. study that estimated first-year implementation costs of $600 million to $4 billion for growers, producers, retailers, and wholesalers.

Rising demand for food product information has spurred IBM to develop software and systems that use Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags to trace food items, and other goods, from source to store shelves. The starting price for a basic server is about $7,000, but IBM says implementation also requires its consulting services and RFID tags. With both companies and consumers newly aware of the risks, Bob Egan, chief analyst for research firm TowerGroup Inc. in Needham, Mass., says to expect similar offerings soon.

Jeremy Quittner is a staff writer for BusinessWeek in New York.

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