Online global grocery site helps shoppers understand where food comes from

A new online tool by Washington-based consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch could capture the interest of Canadians concerned about the safety of imported foods.

TORONTO — A new online tool by Washington-based consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch could capture the interest of Canadians concerned about the safety of imported foods.

The Global Grocer: Where is Your Produce From? transports online visitors to a virtual supermarket displaying fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables that top grocery lists of many Canadian and American consumers.

After clicking on various items to add them to a shopping cart, shoppers can learn the likelihood of the food item being imported and from what countries.

For example, many consumers may be surprised to learn that one out of four packages of frozen spinach is imported.

China alone produces one out of seven frozen spinach packages shoppers buy at the supermarket.

A study done by the advocacy group last year shows that much of the imported food from off-shore countries such as China, Chile, New Zealand and Mexico, to name a few, used to be grown in the U.S., says Patrick Woodall, senior policy advocate on farm policy and international trade at Food & Water Watch.

“Structurally we have encouraged this through the pursuit of free-trade deals that aim to allow companies to source their product at the cheapest point,” he said in an interview. “So it encourages food-processing companies and produce importers to seek out cheaper venues and these include venues with weaker environmental standards.”

These, he says, include unenforced pesticide rules and disregard for workers’ safety and wages.

“It’s a pursuit of a race to the bottom of food production that delivers to the American and Canadian plates a source of cheaper food but produced potentially under riskier conditions,” Woodall says.

He cites the big salmonella outbreak in 2008 in Mexico when raw serrano and jalapeno peppers were found to be contaminated.

“This was inadvertently linked to U.S.-grown tomatoes and destroyed a whole season of tomato production for our growers here.”

And Woodall adds that one of the arguments for free trade at any price is to give consumers more choice and to bring more things to the supermarket during the winter.

“And while that may seem attractive at first blush, the reality is opening the floodgates and we are seeing more head-to-head competition with imported fruits and vegetables coming in at the peak of our growing season.”

Woodall says the Global Grocer site would be useful to Canadian consumers.

“The U.S. imports from the larger commercial producers and they serve a global market.

“Those melon exporters in Central America are tied in with the large international fruit companies and they export cantaloupes and honeydews to Canada as well.”

Woodall says all this global production “certainly flies in the face of eating local.”

He adds that “on a very basic level, consumers need to have the information to make choices about where their food is coming from.”

For more information on the Global Grocer, visit www.foodandwaterwatch.org/global-grocer to start your shopping trip.

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