Q.: So many products do not state origin on them, merely “distributed by,” so we have no idea where they were grown. I do not want to ingest any products from these countries, nor put them on my body (lotions, powders, etc). What is the answer, Lisa?
— L.C., Wadsworth
A.: Federal food and customs laws require that all products that are imported be labeled as such. So, for example, pasta imported from Italy should say “Product of Italy” on its label, or hand lotion made in China should say “Made in China” on its label.
In recent years, this country of origin labeling for food was extended to meat, fish and produce. For produce, the label often appears on the sign bearing the name of the item on the store display, so you do have to read signs and often the teeny print on labels on the fruit too. If you can’t find the information, ask a store manager.
When it comes to packaged foods, say a box of cookies, unless it is specifically labeled “Made in Italy” or “Product of Germany,” you can assume it was made in the U.S.
The “packaged by” and “distributed by” phrasing often happens when one company is buying goods from another and distributing them under its own label. This happens a lot when stores sell their own brands. The store brand is produced by one manufacturer, but sold under the store’s label, which is why the label may read “distributed by,” with the name and address of the corporate offices of the store, not the maker, on the label.
In this case, the country of origin labeling still applies. So if the product was made outside the U.S., it would have to say so.
Think about food recalls you have read about in the past. One company often is making food for a wide variety of distributors, which is why the list of brands being recalled is often a long one, even though they all came from one manufacturer.
Where this gets tricky is with an exception to food labeling laws that allows for imported foods that undergo “substantial transformation” (being used to create new foods here) to be labeled “made in the USA.”
Here is an example provided by an FDA compliance manual:
Imported shrimp that is peeled and deveined here, but still sold as shrimp, could not be labeled as a “product of the USA.”
However, imported shrimp that is turned into shrimp quiche by a U.S. company could then be labeled as “product of the USA,” because the quiche was made in the U.S., even though the shrimp was not from here.
Imported shrimp that is peeled and deveined here and labeled as “imported by” or “distributed by” a U.S. company, without giving the shrimp’s country of origin, would actually meet food labeling requirements, but would be a violation of federal customs law.
Got a food question? Lisa Abraham has the answer. Call 330-996-3737; email her at firstname.lastname@example.org with “Ask Lisa” in the subject line; or write to her at 44 E. Exchange St., P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640. Please include your name (initials will be printed on request), hometown and phone number.