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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Small Type and Large Loopholes in New Labeling Laws

The New York Times reports on the new labeling laws that will give retailers until March 30 to label the country of origin for different fruits and meats.  Marian Burros writes,

FruitsAFTER six years of political skirmishing, labeling laws that are supposed to tell shoppers whether their tomatoes, apples or chicken are homegrown or imported have taken effect.

The new law gives retailers until March 30 to label the country of origin for foods including fruits, vegetables, beef, lamb, chicken, goat meat, ginseng, peanuts, pecans and macadamia nuts. Until now, only seafood has been subject to the labeling rule.

Some proponents say the labels will help consumers avoid products from countries like China, where food safety has been a problem.

But an inspection of how seafood is sold in many New York stores suggests that the law contains a significant loophole that, when coupled with a lack of resources for enforcement, raises questions about how great an effect the rules have.

Any stores that sell less than $230,000 worth of fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables are not required to label imports.

That immediately eliminates all fish markets as well as butcher shops, of which there are a considerable number in New York City. It also eliminates small grocery stores.

To see how well the seafood regulation has been implemented, and to get an idea of what consumers might find next April, I visited the fish counters of 25 supermarkets, grocery stores and fish markets in New York last week.

The supermarkets were all in compliance, although some country-of-origin labels were more clear than others and several were virtually illegible.

However, three stores that should have had the labels did not: Eli’s Manhattan and Grace’s Marketplace, on the Upper East Side; and the Garden of Eden on 23rd Street.

Kristyn Zylka, director of marketing for Garden of Eden, which has four stores in the city, said the company was embarrassed that the labels were not present because it is the store’s policy to label its seafood.

Both Ross Breen, general manager of Eli’s, and Joseph Doria Jr., one of the owners of Grace’s, said they did not know about the law.

On Monday, fish was properly labeled at all three stores.

By far the most informative and most readable country-of-origin signs observed were those at Wild Edibles in Grand Central Market, even though the store is exempt from the law.

“We do it for the customers,” said Steve Schafer, the manager.

At D’Agostino on Broadway and 110th Street, the signs’ lettering was small and very difficult to read.

One reason store owners might not know their requirements for imported seafood is that the Department of Agriculture has $1 million for enforcement of country-of-origin rules nationwide.

That money was meant to cover seafood, but for now, at least, it must also cover the new commodities. Lloyd Day, administrator of the department’s Agricultural Marketing Service, estimated last week that full rule enforcement would take $9.6 million.

Stores are not required to label fish if it has been processed in any way, like marinated catfish or shrimp on a skewer.

Similarly, stores are not required to label shrimp that has been peeled and cooked.

But those who prefer American shrimp will be able to identify it in most big stores, as long as the shrimp is still in its shell and uncooked.

The stores that were visited last week were also ignoring earlier regulations governing farmed salmon and fish that has been previously frozen and thawed.

The Food and Drug Administration requires that labels for farmed salmon say “color added.” Farmed salmon, naturally grayish, turn pink when they are fed various sources of carotenoids.

Only at Whole Foods at Columbus Circle and Eli’s was the farmed salmon so labeled.

Another F.D.A. regulation requires that previously frozen fish, thawed before sale, be labeled “previously frozen.” Freezing fish twice plays havoc with its texture and doesn’t do much for its flavor.

In the stores that were visited, only some thawed shrimp carried that information. Other thawed fish had no hint that it had been frozen.

On several occasions, employees behind the counter would point out the previously frozen fish when asked.

An F.D.A. spokesman said that the agency takes labeling violations seriously. But, he said, “Since it isn’t a safety issue, a violation of this type would not be a priority.”

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