28 thoughts on “Silly me…

  1. Yeah there’s some regional chicken company advertising their products as american and that “recently imported chicken has been in the news”, and I was all like…

    What? Never noticed that disclosure….

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    • Given what I remember during the last debate about GMO labeling, I’d say that some of us have different definitions of what constitutes informed and for me, I don’t think I was particularly charitable toward the pro GMO labeling position. In fact, I’m still not although I’ve come to the conclusion that I really don’t care.

      I think labeling is important for health and safety reasons. Does country of origin fall into the same category as, say ingredients and nutritional content? I’m not inclined to believe that especially since I’d like to think that not only will the US Government have requirements on food safety for foodstuffs imported into this country but also importers of foreign beef that then package, process and put products into the marketplace are subject to a whole other set of regulations pertaining to the quality and the safety of the product. It seems like a belt and suspenders approach to me.

      If the label requirement goes away, I’m not going to celebrate its demise nor am I going to worry that it’s absence is going to put our food supply at risk. I’m pretty neutral about it.

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      • Sure, it’s imprecise. But when you are trying to trace back something through a food chain it sure seems like it’d be helpful.

        If there’s one letter envelope full of anthrax moving through the US postal system, is it better if that envelope has a country listed in the return address, or not?

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        • But when you are trying to trace back something through a food chain it sure seems like it’d be helpful.

          If they can’t do this now, then we have a real food safety issue on our hands. I have to think they can do this, especially given the potential legal liability if they couldn’t.

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          • I’m sure “they” can theoretically do this, but I still lean towards this being a bad idea. For foodstuffs in particular, since by definition they are meant to be ingested, more labeling information is generally better than less, for whenever the s**t inevitably hits the fan, as it periodically must do.

            I went to a restaurant the other day with a menu proudly noting that they used Blue Bell Ice Cream in all their shakes etc. (Blue Bell is basically shut down right now due to various health violations at their facilities). I asked if they were still using BB, and the waitress assured me they were not, but just had not yet updated their menus.

            Was that moment of quick inquiry foolproof, safety-wise? Nope, she might have been lying to me, and they were still serving me old leftover BB ice cream (for that matter, maybe they NEVER served BB, and just said they did).

            But I’d like to believe that they used to serve BB, and even if they for some reason were unaware of the problems at BB, that notation on the menu allowed me to ask a question and potentially avoid a problem.

            I think it’s worth noting that Canada and Mexico are pushing for this, but I suspect businesses here would also like to import and use meat from wherever they can get it cheapest; I understand that impulse, but in practice that means sooner or later your meat’ll be coming from a place with more lax standards than Mexico or Canada (or even, with just fine standards in general, but there has still been a snafu at some level).

            Remember all those Chinese lead-painted toys a few years back? Were people who decided it wasn’t worth it to buy made-in-China toys for a while just being silly?

            Let’s say there is another outbreak of BSE, and we are able to identify the country of origin of the problem.

            In today’s world, we get on the news and say “don’t eat any beef from the UK; check the package, and see if it came from there, and if it did, toss it.”

            What do we say when that info is removed? “Don’t eat beef, period”?

            Or, “Don’t eat beef if you bought it from Target Grocery between such-and-such dates, and I really hope you remember when and where you bought it before you stuck it in the freezer 6 months ago”?

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            • I’d say yes to the toys, but then again, I expect people to KNOW that shade of yellow.

              As for beef? eating it not-well-done is risky. you know that, I know that.

              But I worry more about listeria…

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            • No, “they” really can’t, at least not always. Any given consumer object is comprised of parts and materials from dozens of different sources, and absent any strong compelling interest in provenance, who would care where the gizmo for your widget comes from?

              Likewise with the food stream- cows are fed a diet of grains mixed with ground up slurry of other cows, and what is in one cow is distributed to thousands of others. The processing plants change vendors, who change suppliers, who in turn change their destination customers.

              Further, how far back is far back enough?

              This is where our concepts of law and property collide with the empirical facts of the natural world. Our laws and customs assume a linear path- raw material to refined material to part to product to being thrown away. Period, end of story.

              Except there is no “away”.
              Instead of things being linear, they are an endless loop. A grain is harvested, fed to a cow, part of which is fed to humans, part fed to other cows, part spilled ont he ground, part refined into consumer goods. These all end up in landfills/ groundwater/ air/ food/ whatever, then end up being absorbed into soybeans, or drunk by humans, or sprayed on fields.

              Some chemicals break down quickly, others recombine into more complex chemicals, others persist and circulate through the biosphere.

              This would all be mildly interesting scientific trivia like “you are breathing atoms of Caesar” except they have real consequences.

              Cross pollution which has real harmful effects is happening all around us from pesticides to fertilizer to saltwater intrusion into aquifers.

              I don’t have a magic solution but suggest that there also is no “they”- no one has a good grasp of what we are doing to the biosphere or how it will affect us- but the disconnect and lack of awareness can’t possibly be helpful.

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            • For foodstuffs in particular, since by definition they are meant to be ingested, more labeling information is generally better than less, for whenever the s**t inevitably hits the fan, as it periodically must do.

              I’d go with a longer response, but I’m pressed for time. I think my point isn’t as theoretical as I may have sounded. As a layperson, I have some understanding of the way recalls work with food so whether or not the foodstuffs in question are from the US, Germany, Argentina, Brazil, there are ways to identify contaminated products without needing the country of origin to do it.

              What do we say when that info is removed? “Don’t eat beef, period”?

              Given the business and legal ramifications, I’d expect the food manufacturers to step in here, as they usually do.

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              • Sure, Customs does; but Customs only sees it when it enters the country, and it’s a big country it can move around after that. If the issue/contamination occurred at point of origin (like BSE) but was not discovered until after Customs, that Customs knowledge does you very little good. I see you responded to LWA below, let me expand further there.

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  2. What I recall from the Mad Cow panic, was that the food stream is so complex that it can be literally impossible to determine the origin of all the various ingredients of foods.

    I’m not sure that the country of origin per se is a hill to die on, but it does touch on this basic fact that no one has any real idea of what they are eating.

    Or for that matter, where our water comes from, where it goes when we are done with it, where our clothing comes from, where our trash goes, and on and on and on.

    The miracle of modern industrialization has allowed us to become disconnected from the sources of our consumption, which also means being disconnected from the people who provide them and their concerns and interests.

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      • We manage to label all kinds of things that are not food (and IMO, are therefore somewhat less critical to do labeling on, since only food is *specifically* meant to be ingested; so when consumers are looking for food-labeling information, it is usually less for ideological or economic reasons, and more for health or “I don’t want to die” reasons).

        Remember the NSA metadata-collection kerfuffle? Food labeling is a kind of metadata. The reason we were upset when the NSA was collecting this, is because metadata can actually be quite useful and telling about where an object (even if not physical, like an e-mail) has been and is going, and who has had possession of it.

        When it comes to communications, this is obviously highly-problematic (from an individual freedom/privacy perspective) but from a government (“safety”, scare-quoted for obvious reasons) perspective it has the *potential* to be useful – if not in the prevention of a problem, at least in the rapid backtracing of one, if nothing else.

        The application of this principle to a contaminated food chain should be obvious.

        The less metadata we require on our foodstuffs, the harder it will be for authorities to backtrace problems.

        We also throw the public at the mercy of the competence of said authorities; better food labeling allows more people to decide for themselves what they will and will not ingest, based on the best information available to them at that time.

        I understand the objections to labeling something as ill-defined as “GMO”, though if a common useful definition can be reached, I don’t see the harm in including it.

        But “country of origin” is, or should be, straightforward-enough and easy to include, when it comes to meat and other minimally-processed foodstuffs. I have a hard time believing that removing this info will bring enough cost savings to offset the potential problems and public outcry, next time they inevitably occur.

        If libertarianism is about empowering the individual, what empowers him more here – theoretically-slightly-cheaper beef (the cost savings of not-labelling, plus importers sourcing from whatever country has the cheapest beef, safety reputation be damned); or, the ability to know/choose for himself which countries he wants to “do business with” in his food choices?

        In my opinion, requirements for simply labeling the country of origin of food does not rise to the level of “trade protectionism”; or if it does, it’s a low-level, non-onerous, non-malicious one, which can be justified under the heading of a government’s responsibility to the health and autonomous choices of its own citizens.

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      • By itself, a country of origin label isn’t sufficient. But as Glyph notes above, its not like its technically impossible to trace sources.
        Its more that [right now] it isn’t sufficiently important to t[he right sort of] people that such a program could be in place.

        Meaning, in order to trace and track that volume of data is technically possible, but would require a large bureaucracy, and there are a lot of stakeholders who would object.

        And since the outbreaks of disease and poisoning haven’t affected anyone who matters, there isn’t sufficient political will to make such a bureacracy happen.

        I raised the larger point that our current industrial processes appear to be miraculous- in a century, food and consumer goods have magically appeared in abundance, without any sort of cost or side effects.
        We sort of got a taste of it when rivers began to catch fire and some cities had air that was unbreathable, which led to the modern environmental movement.

        But there is a deeper problem emerging where consumers are physically, politically and culturally disconnected from producers.
        Eric Loomis over at LGM makes this point about how the intricate structure of international trade has allowed or encouraged this disconnect.

        I see it here in California where no one realizes where the water spilling out of their tap comes from. Our wives don’t go down to a well and haul buckets, we don’t have to fill cisterns with rain, and if you live in an apartment, you never, ever see a bill. Water appears out of nowhere like magic, and the public service ads about drought seem like annoying background noise.

        I don’t have a magic bullet for all this, since there is no single problem vector. I’m just saying that there is a problem, and the effects are just beginning to be felt.

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  3. Contrary to my position on GMO labeling, I’m actually on board with this, because there are actual harms that result from improper food-handling practices in certain countries (as opposed to woo-woo conspiracies about GMO food).

    It’s also a lot easier to identify the country of origin and put it on a label than it is to determine A) what actually constitutes GMO food, B) how far up the chain you need to trace its presence (like, if GMO corn was ground into starch and used to keep the packaging from sticking together before it was filled, does that mean the package needs a GMO label?) and C) whether producers will *not* just put “may contain GMO” on everything, leaving customers no more informed than before.

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  4. When it comes to communications, this is obviously highly-problematic (from an individual freedom/privacy perspective) but from a government (“safety”, scare-quoted for obvious reasons) perspective it has the *potential* to be useful – if not in the prevention of a problem, at least in the rapid backtracing of one, if nothing else.

    The federal government will know the country of origin. The domestic food producer that buys the meat from, say, a seller in Argentina, will know exactly where the product is coming from. When the domestic food producer turns the source meat into, say, processed beef patties, packages them, boxes them and ships them off to a grocery store in Tulsa, OK, they will know where the meat in those patties came from.

    They have to. In the event of a contamination issue, to avoid consumers getting sick or worse, the choices are to: a) be able to identify the exact products where contaminated meat was used and selectively pull products lea or b) pull all products off the shelf.

    Also, if there’s an issue with contaminated meat that was initially imported and the issue was with the meat itself and not how it was processed domestically, both the companies and the federal government are going to know this. If foodstuffs are not meeting up to the safety standards set by the US Government, then the meat shouldn’t be imported at all.

    On one hand, I understand your position. On the other hand, does people avoiding meat based on the country of origin kind imply a belief that our regulatory framework is such that it allows potentially unsafe meat on the market?

    I guess my point is that if the regulatory framework is such that regulators and domestic food producers work in concert to ensure that potentially contaminated food sources are kept out of the market (and out of the country), country of origin labeling doesn’t inform a consumer’s decision on safety grounds, at least I don’t think so.

    Is a COOL a minimal intrusion? Maybe it is since I’ve never actually seen one. ;)

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    • Go back to my Blue Bell ice cream example. An unsafe food product recently made it to market, and this is something that will happen periodically, no matter what safeguards we have in place.

      “Blue Bell” is, among other things, a label.

      If the supermarket only sells buckets labelled “Generic Ice Cream”, their incentive to do the safe thing (pull potentially-tainted ice cream) over the profitable thing (sell it) is reduced, since they can plausibly claim ignorance/inability to easily figure out which buckets are which.

      The consumer, having heard on the radio that there is a problem with some ice cream manufacturing facilities, can either choose to avoid all ice cream entirely, or else take his chances that the pint of Generic Ice Cream that he bought did not come from tainted facilities.

      I think erring on the side of the inclusion of more data points is generally better, particularly if the data points can be easily-obtained, and are relatively straightforward/uncontroversial in definition. “Country of origin” seems to fit that bill.

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