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Beginning Tuesday, September 30, a new USDA law over four years in the making will require retailers to list the country of origin on a lot more of the foods they sell. Though the law is specifically directed at recent discoveries of melamine in products of Chinese origin, which now include Cadbury chocolate and Mr. Brown coffee creamer, lawmakers are hoping that it will help consumers allay their fears of contamination by giving them more control over the foods they buy.

Country-of-origin labeling, or simply, COOL, will also help experts identify the origins of contamination outbreaks, such as those recently caused by Californian spinach and Mexican peppers tainted with salmonella, more quickly and efficiently.

Unfortunately, the new COOL law does not apply to all foods sold in grocery stores. Retailers must only label the country of origin for all raw beef, veal, lamb, pork, chicken, goat, wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish, fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, peanuts, pecans, macadamia nuts and whole ginseng.

Processed foods, such as those that have recently been found to contain melamine, are exempt from labeling requirements. Retailers do not have to state a food’s country of origin if it is cooked or otherwise substantially altered from its fresh, raw state. The nationality of your chicken nuggets, veggie burgers, bacon (it’s cured, not fresh pork), canned corn, cereal, cookies, candy, and roasted nut blend is going to remain a mystery. Ditto with foods that are mixed together, such as a bag of frozen mixed berries.

Butcher shops and specialty fish markets do not have to observe the COOL new law at all. When dining out, keep in mind that neither do restaurants.

Also keep in mind that foods produced in America are likely to have traveled less distance and taken less energy to reach the grocery store. The average US food is transported over 1,500 miles to get from the farm to your dinner plate. Consistently choosing to eat as local as possible will not only increase your food’s freshness and decrease the risk of contaminants, but will help America significantly reduce its oil consumption.

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