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Consumer Protection Aim of Bono Bill

Where was the fresh produce you just purchased from four local market grown? Don't answer immediately. There isn't any law that says you must be told if what you purchase and eat is domestic or foreign.

That's important because foreign countries, principally Mexico, do not have the same regulations to which domestic produce is subjected; nor do foreign countries have restrictions on carcinogenic pesticides.

Although virtually every consumer product has a label identifying its country or origin, the imported produce we eat is not required to provide consumers with this important piece of information.

That would be remedied under a bill introduced by Rep. Sonny Bono (R- Calif.), the Imported Produce Labeling Act of 1997 (H.R. 1232). Under provisions of the bill, "American consumers will finally have the information they need to safely choose which fresh produce they will purchase and consume," a Bono spokesman says.

"This is a common sense way of providing the American consumers with basic information about the produce they may want to purchase," Bono said. "Virtually every one of our major trade partners -- Japan, Australia, the European nations -- all mandate country of origin labeling. Shouldn't we?"

Recent news stories of school children exposed to hepatitis-A due to Mexican strawberries, and previous outbreaks of cyclospora bacteria in raspberries imported from Guatemala underscore the need for labeling imported produce, according to the bill's sponsors.

Currently, only the container used to transport the produce is required to carry a country of origin label. Under H.R. 1232, produce retailers will provide labeling on or near imported fruits and vegetables at the final point of sale, if the produce is not already labeled. This requirement will be neither complicated nor burdensome to farmers or retailers, the bill's supporters say.

A grocer could place a sign above the food bin, use the shipping container already labeled or include the information on or next to the price sign. The legislation allows the retailer to determine the most effective and least costly means of compliance. A similar law has proven successful in Florida and compliance cost have been described as minimal, according to Bono.

In 1996, the United states imported $1.7 billion in fruit and vegetables from other countries. Since adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Mexican vegetables -- particularly tomatoes -- have consistently gained a shore of the U.S. market.

Not everyone is happy with the proposal, however. "We see this as a thinly veiled effort to limit or restrict imported produce," said Edie Clark, spokeswoman for the Food Marketing Institute, which represents the supermarket industry.

According to Ms. Clark, grocery store owners don't want the added cost and confusion of putting up signs. And they don't want any restrictions on Mexican tomatoes, she said.

Bono says his aides will be happy to provide more information on the bill to interested consumers. Call (202) 225-5330 to share your view.