Should it matter to Americans which country the food on the dinner plate comes from? Grocers and meat packers say No. Consumer groups say Yes.

Americans are increasingly eating imported food. Some 11 percent of food is now imported, and that figure is rising.

Responding to pressure from consumer groups and farmers, Congress in 2002 inserted a rule in the farm-subsidy law requiring grocers to tell consumers the country in which meat, fish, produce, and peanuts sold in the US originated. (Chicken is not on the list because so little of it is imported.)

The rule's supporters say it's a food-safety issue. But it's really about protectionism. This trade barrier in disguise is slated to go into effect in September 2004. Opposition to "country-of-origin labeling" (COOL) remains strong, however, and a House committee recently approved a one-year delay in funding.

Consumer advocates' safety concerns may be valid - but food safety is best assured by the Food and Drug Administration and the US Department of Agriculture at the border.

The rule unfairly places the burden of labeling and increased recordkeeping on grocers rather than food companies, where it usually rests. If US companies want to voluntarily place a "Made in USA" sticker on their products to reassure consumers, they may. But Congress should repeal this mandatory labeling altogether.

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