It’s always surprising to see the places my foods have been! If only plants could write their history…
This winter, when I shopped for some of my kitchen staples, I paid attention to how far food travels to get to my kitchen. The lemons, garlic, mushrooms, avocado, carrots, celery, canned tomatoes, and assorted frozen berries now in my kitchen are renowned world travelers — visiting my home from Argentina, Chile, Italy, Canada, Guatemala, Mexico, Spain, Turkey, oh and yes, unknown states in the USA.
While I do like to have many of these particular foods on hand for nutritional and gustatory reasons, there are many downsides to this long-distance relationship with the foods I love.
First, quality: To be packaged for shipping, many times these vegetables and fruits and picked before they are ripe. This is particularly true of tomatoes. At some point along the route to my table they might be sprayed with a little ethylene gas to make them appear riper. Truth is, in spite of shippers; best efforts, many fruits and vegetables do not continue to ripen once taken off the vine, out of the ground or once they stray too far away from the sun’s reach. So, when they get to my kitchen counter, they may look ripe, but they just don’t have the fresh taste of the ones I can get at the farmers’ market.
Second safety: The more food travels and the more hands it passes to get to my table – the more risk there is of food borne illness. Over the past 10 years the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has rejected numerous shipments of plant foods like green beans and mushrooms due to illegal pesticide violations, excessive filth and unsanitary conditions of the products. Luckily, the FDA is looking out for us.
Third – labor standards: I am never sure what the working conditions might be in the country of origin. Where children skipping out on an education to work in the fields and harvest my berries? Did a woman give birth in that same field because she was not allowed to take a day off? Where workers exposed to dangerous pesticides and fertilizers that we would not use in the USA?
While ultimately, I would love to be a locovore, eating only foods in my bioregion, I am happy these labels exist; they can be found at almost any grocery store. Consumers and non-profit groups like Food and Water Watch and National Family Farm Coalition fought hard to make the 2008 rule for mandatory country of origin labeling (COOL), for meat, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, and several kinds of nuts. While the law is not perfect, at least I do know more, and have a choice when I reach for lemon and start my day. Learn more about the foods you eat using Food and Water Watch’s interactive shopping cart.