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Agri Leader

Peering at labels is eye-opening

VANESSA CACERES Central Florida's Agri-Leader
Published:   |   Updated: March 11, 2013 at 06:35 PM

Chile. Costa Rica. Mexico. Guatemala.

Countries visited during a Latin American vacation?

No. They're common countries of origin for produce items in your fridge.

As I write about agriculture and food, I spend a little more time than most reading food labels at the store, especially in the produce section. I'm starting to get strange looks. All of that label reading got me curious to find out more about the stickers that are an ubiquitous sight on a number of fruits and veggies. Many bear a little sticker (and often a bar code), making the fresh-eating experience feel a bit more commercialized.

In the United States, $94.5 billion of our agricultural products in 2011 were imported, according to government data. Imports are about 13 to 15 percent of our annual overall produce market.

China, Mexico, Chile and India are the biggest countries from which we buy and import food.

Why is it important to label our produce?

"Consumers have the right to know so they can make an intelligent decision on whether they want to buy local or take a chance on something grown in another country," said Teena Borek, whose family operates the tomato company Teena's Pride in Homestead.

Borek is a longtime advocate of produce labeling.

Food safety is a major reason consumers should know where their food is grown. Standards in other countries may not match safety standards in the United States, she said. This is particularly the case with organic products, Borek added.

A number of consumers are aiming — rightly so, she said — to buy produce or other agricultural items grown locally. This leads to another reason food labeling is important.

"Do you want to buy green beans that have been on a truck for three weeks or ones that were harvested two days ago?" Borek asked.

As a supporter of local agriculture, I take stock of the 11 items I have in the house. Nearly half come from Latin America — three from Mexico alone — and the others were grown in the United States. Only one — a tomato — was grown in Florida. So much for my local commitment.

Florida has long required that produce be labeled with a country of origin, and federal regulators enacted country of origin labeling laws in 2009 for retailers that sell fresh meat, poultry, fish, fruits and veggies and certain nuts. This is why those little stickers on produce items and signs are so common now.

However, it's also not uncommon to see inaccuracies. A visit to my local supermarket had a handwritten sign indicating the grapes were from Peru, when the bag clearly showed they were from Chile. Unless you were to ask my Peruvian ex-husband, who dislikes Chile, I'm guessing neither you nor I think this is a major mistake. Still, that sign is representative of some of the efforts supermarkets must make to stay compliant.

Florida takes ag product labeling a step further with its Fresh From Florida campaign that started in the early 1990s. Approximately 1,000 ag businesses pay $50 a year to be able to label their products with a Fresh From Florida sticker, said Kechia Dean, development representative at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Those products represented $13 billion in sales last year, said Sterling Ivey, a press secretary with the Department of Agriculture.

A charter member of the Fresh From Florida program, Borek of Teena's Pride applauds Fresh From Florida for its efforts to draw attention to Florida-grown produce and other ag products such as beef and seafood.

The program also does advertising and offers incentives to grocery store chains when they stock Florida-grown products for a certain number of weeks out of the year, Dean said.