Chilly Note: Be Sure to Read Frozen Food Labels

The American Alliance for Honest Food Labeling (AAHL) is encouraging consumers to read the labels on frozen-food packages.

Few people can determine whether the frozen produce they buy is grown in the United States or somewhere else, says AAHL, a group of growers, processors, and industry associations. Close to 75 percent of frozen broccoli is grown outside the US, as is 100 percent of okra.

Reports of contaminated strawberries that were linked to illness in schoolchildren recently has caused concern over food safety. The berries were grown in Mexico, then processed and frozen in San Diego. They were served as part of the school lunch; some were falsely labeled as domestically grown. (The school lunch program does not allow imported produce.)

Where the contamination occurred had not been determined as of this writing.

But the incident highlights the need for straightforward information. "The more information, the better," says Jeff Brown, executive director of the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau and a member of the alliance. "We want to make the industry accountable and make consumers feel comfortable."

Last year, the US Customs Service proposed a new regulation that would require companies to print the foreign country-of-origin information in a "prominent place" on the front of frozen-food packages. Many companies as well as the trade group the American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI) objected. Right now, companies are required by law to clearly mark that information, but some don't do it. AFFI argues it's up to US customs to enforce the law.

A look at frozen vegetables sheds some light. Last year, Americans bought 1.4 billion pounds of frozen vegetables, equaling $1.8 billion in sales. In a national poll, 83 percent of Americans surveyed said they had never noticed a label on a frozen vegetable package stating where the vegetables were grown; some 73 percent said they would be more likely to buy vegetables grown in the US than outside the country. More than 40 percent said that supporting American farmers is the best reason to buy frozen vegetables grown in the US, while 37 percent said that the American standard of farming, handling, and sanitation was the best reason.

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