Tomato, Tomahto: Just Gimme Made in the USA

Travelers to Germany should be aware that the German public health authorities have advised against eating raw sprouts, tomatoes, cucumbers, and leafy salads from sources in northern Germany until further notice. United States public health and regulatory authorities currently have no indication that any of these foods have been shipped from Europe to the United States.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Travelers’ diarrhea (TD) is the most common illness affecting travelers. Each year between 20%-50% of international travelers, an estimated 10 million persons, develop diarrhea… The most important determinant of risk is the traveler’s destination. High-risk destinations are the developing countries of Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia…The primary source of infection is ingestion of fecally contaminated food or water.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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If more of us valued food and cheer and song above gold, it would be a merrier world.

                                                                                     –J.R.R. Tolkien

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Even before I began this Buy-U.S.A. project, Don / Richie C had banned Mexican-grown produce from our house. And if I did get rebellious and bring home south-of-the-border tomatoes, they had to be washed and cooked. Period. Don’s fear–unlike mine, which tends to be about things like the funny noise an airplane makes after take-off and whether the pilot heard it–is reality-based. He’s a board certified infectious disease specialist. How he sleeps at night is beyond me. He knows way too much for his own good. Prior to January 1st, I would call him from the produce section of the grocery store. “Are you sure about the Mexican tomatoes? They have these really cute multi-colored baby ones for our salad. I can’t find any grown in the U.S.A.” Silence on the other end of the phone. Then: “Sure, go ahead and buy ‘em. Just don’t give ‘em to me.”

As the non-scientist in the family, I think in magical terms. If you don’t believe in icky diseases, they won’t happen to you. If you don’t believe you can get a fungal infection from a pedicure, you’ll be fine. If you don’t believe in Montezuma’s Revenge when you’re visiting Mexico, you’ll be safe. Decades ago, before we had kids, Don and I vacationed in stunningly beautiful Puerto Vallarta. Warm breezes. White sand. Aqua ocean. “Whatever you do, don’t drink the water or eat the produce,” Don said as we got off the plane. I was so relieved we’d made it there (funny engine noises), I really hadn’t thought about anything else. We both ate and drank the exact same things, and yet I (magically) breezed through the trip just fine. Don–who happened to be in the middle of his infectious disease training at the time–came down with a nasty case of Montezuma’s Revenge that resisted treatment, lasted for weeks, and guaranteed that in the future we’d bypass Mexico and go straight to Hawaii. Not a bad outcome, really.

I mention all this because it seems to me that the WTO’s (World Trade Organization’s) ideas about labeling–or rather, not labeling–where foods originate reflects a decidedly non-scientific approach. Just think magical, happy thoughts and buy those tomatoes. No need to fret about their country of origin. Mexico, U.S.A., or Timbuktu. Who cares? We are one big global family.

But here is not the same as there. You say tomato, I say tomahto. I know we’re far from perfect, but grown here versus grown in a country without clean water and other basic safeguards can’t be the same. Consider the CDC’s helpful guide to “Traveler’s Diarrhea” as stated on their U.S. government website and cut-and-pasted at the top of this post for your reading pleasure. My favorite line: The primary source of infection is ingestion of fecally contaminated food or water.

I’m just saying. Now think about those tomatoes, blueberries, watermelons, cucumbers, sprouts, lettuces and (fill in the blank) coming to your produce section from somewhere in Latin America, and realize that it’s not too paranoid to say they were possibly grown in “fecally contaminated” water. They should, at minimum, be vigorously washed. Don says “nuke ‘em.” Meaning irradiate them. “Kills everything and it’s perfectly safe.” But the best idea yet, according to the scientist / patriot in the family? “Grow ‘em here. You wouldn’t need to nuke ‘em.”

One time a friend called Don / Richie C after everyone at a graduation party got sick. He asked what they’d served.  “Salad, tomatoes,” she said, “nothing that unusual…” Don said: ” Where did the lettuce and tomatoes come from? Do you know? Mexico?” She was incredulous, even offended. “Why does that matter? That can’t be it. Lettuce and tomatoes don’t go bad…not like mayonnaise does.” Don hung up the phone and shook his head. “People just don’t get it. It’s not that tomatoes or lettuce go bad. It’s that they arrive bad.”  And don’t even get him started on “organic Mexican” He’ll shake his head. “That’s just such a scary thought.”

A few days after the E. coli outbreak in Germany had killed 24 people and sickened another 2400+, Russia issued a ban on all EU (European Union) produce. Scientists haven’t yet determined which food caused the deadly outbreak. But Russia–perhaps eager to boost domestic sales of produce–hasn’t wavered. According to Prague Insider, Gennady Onishchenko, head of Russia’s consumer protection agency, said: “We are calling on the population not to purchase fresh vegetables from Germany and Spain…Let them purchase domestic products.” Domestic products. What an original idea. Go, Gennady.

Russia, by the way, is not yet a WTO member, although it has applied for membership. In the meantime, the WTO and EU (European Union) have demanded Russia abandon its EU produce ban, saying it’s a violation of the WTO principles. I wonder if Russia’s aware of the what the WTO has up its sleeve regarding country of origin labels. (See my last post.)

But even as the WTO moves toward requiring the U.S.A. to remove country of origin labels on meat, fish, produce and other agricultural perishables, there’s a move underway in the EU calling for stricter labeling on its own products. The EU wants its own consumers to be able to see when products originate in the EU.

Yes, this is the same EU that’s lined up behind Mexico and Canada against the United States’ country of origin labels. According to The Wall Street Journal (“Country Labeling Sets off EU Debate,” June 6, 2011), the EU now wants “Made in” labels on “billions of euros in goods sold in the European Union.” The idea has been approved by the EU Parliament and the European Commission and “reflects concerns over a struggling economy and losing jobs to foreign competition.” Michele Tronconi, CEO of an Italian textile finisher is quoted as saying, “It’s all about making it fair for European companies still making their goods in Europe.”

I agree, Monsieur Tronconi. Let’s keep those country of origin labels coming, whether on produce or textiles or perishables. Consumers–in any country–have a right to know where their products were made. And yes, it’s complicated for products like furniture, textiles, and electronics, what with components flying in from all over the world. But if we could at least see where products are assembled, that would be an improvement. “Assembled in the U.S.A.” or “Made in the U.S.A. with Imported Fabric” aren’t my favorites, but they show that a few U.S. jobs were created. Seems preferable to “Made in China.”

And when it comes to the foods we eat, country of origin labels are a must. Magical thinking, much as I hate to admit it, can only take us so far.

PS: Many thanks to Julie Reiser of Made in the U.S.A. Certified, who alerted me to the WTO’s shenanigans. Check out her website. You’ll be inspired.

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