Oh, Say Can You See...Where Stuff Comes From?

Don--the normally calm one--is on a tirade. Once he gets going, I stand back and let him vent. We had just finished eating dinner. We couldn't have the shrimp sauté Don wanted because Trader Joe's only sells frozen shrimp from Mexico and Thailand. Instead, I grabbed some TJ's frozen teriyaki chicken. I stood there in the freezer section, trying to find the country of origin. On back, the red plastic package said: "Dist. & Sold Exclusively By Trader Joe's, Monrovia, CA 91016." I tossed the package in the cart and moved on. It was late, almost 7 pm. I needed to get home.

"For all we know, this stuff could be from Timbuktu." That's how Don began his rant, after I'd told him about the package labeling. "It's ridiculous. Consumers ought to be able to tell easily. And not just this 'distributed by' or 'assembled in' crap. Know what I mean? There should be a law. Contact that congressman. The guy that just got re-elected. Jerry somebody. What's his name…?"

Sometimes I think Don's only married to me because I help him remember names of celebrities and politicians. "McNerney. Jerry McNerney."

"Yeah. Call his office. I'll picket the place with you if he doesn’t talk to you."

Picket? Don? Think Richie Cunningham in Happy Days and you pretty much have Don. Even the house where he grew up--where his Mom still lives--looks like Richie Cunningham's house. His Mom even looks kind of like Mrs. C. Now picture Richie picketing. Don't think that ever happened in any episodes, did it?

Had we left Happy Days and entered The Twilight Zone? Don may go off on tirades, but in the 30 years I'd known him he'd never come close to doing anything you could call "activist." Come to think of it, neither had I. Class vice-president hardly counted. I'd written op-eds for lots of papers, but writing felt anonymous. Picket signs put you front and center; drew attention to you on purpose. No thanks.

"Really. We can do it together, Teen. This stinks. Like I said, there should be a law."


Turns out there is. Don went off to his office den to dictate patient charts. I did a Google search. The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act was signed into law by then-President Lyndon Johnson in 1966. The majority of the law concerns itself with the metric system, and how to switch over to metric for information stated on packages--weights, sizes, etc. But as to labeling the origin(s) of a product, the law is brief. Here's what Section 500.5 states:

(a) The label of a consumer commodity shall specify conspicuously the name and place of business of the manufacturer, packer, or distributor. Where the consumer commodity is not manufactured by the person whose name appears on the label, the name shall be qualified by a phrase that reveals the connection such person has with such commodity; such as "Manufactured for ______," "Distributed by ______," or any other wording that expresses the facts.

As currently stated, the law gives companies like Trader Joe's an easy way out. That's why we can only see where the teriyaki chicken was distributed, not bought, cooked and packaged. The law needs to be amended. Product origination has gotten so much more complicated since 1966. Nowadays, you buy your Apple iPod, for example, and have no idea which country really manufactured the majority of it. Wouldn't you like to know? I called Don from his office. My laptop sat on the kitchen table, screen open to the Fair Labeling and Packaging Act. Don finished reading, started pacing.

"You know what we need? Flags. That's what the products should have on them. Pictures of flags. Big enough to see at a glance. And if it comes from a bunch of countries, put a bunch of flags."

I nodded from my chair, watching him go back and forth in front of me. He was right. "Yeah, it could be a teachable moment, especially for kids. What does the Thai flag look like anyway? Or Vietnamese? I wouldn't know. But I would see lots of flags that aren't ours. It'd be pretty compelling."

I really meant a teachable moment for me. I am so bad at geography. But as a kid, Don / Richie was (wait for it) a stamp collector; he knows his countries and their flags. And he's gracious about it. Never makes me feel inferior. Gotta love Mrs. C's kid.

Darn. Don / Richie's got me all fired up, too. Do I really have to call Jerry McNerney's office in the morning? I had planned to finally go get my chocolate old-fashioned. But the thought of actually walking into, say, a Target, and seeing all the packages with flags of China on them, prominently displayed for consumers' eyes, sounded so good to me. Or walking into a Gap, seeing all the jeans with Chinese flags on the labels. Oh, say can you see where stuff is manufactured? If not, why not?