COOL labeling. Photo design by Justin Tuerk.

09 Jun 2010

Origins: Welcome!

by Karen Feridun

In the spring of 1930, Mabel White Holmes introduced the first prepared baking mix to a generation of homemakers. When trying to come up with a clever name for her product, Mabel recalled being told as a child, “Mabel, you run and tell your daddy that those biscuits will be ready in a jiffy.” JIFFY Baking Mix has been a staple in the kitchens of generations of homemakers ever since. The Holmes family has been in the milling business since 1802. The Chelsea flour mill the family bought in 1887 is now known as the Chelsea Milling Company where 1.6 million boxes of their 22 mixes are filled each day. The company refers to itself as a complete manufacturer. They store the wheat, mill it into flour, and use that flour to make their mixes. They even make the little blue boxes! Mabel’s grandson, Howdy S. Holmes, a former racecar driver, now runs the Michigan-based company whose familiar blue boxes bear the slogan “Quality and Value since 1930”.

Few products’ roots can be traced so easily, so we thought we’d track them down for you in this column called Origins. After all, discovering the origins of products isn’t just a pleasant diversion for the trivia hound, it’s a matter of increasing importance to consumers whose concerns include product safety, the environment, and support of U.S. businesses, among others. In fact, those concerns have given rise to popular bits of misinformation, like the one about the use of barcodes to determine a product’s country of origin. Rumor has it that you can use the first three digits in a product’s barcode to determine where it came from. It’s true that U.S. and European barcodes include 2- or 3-digit country codes, but they indicate in which country the barcode was assigned, not where the product was made., the rumor-busting website, gives a good example of fruit imported to a Mexican company from Guatemala and then shipped to the United States.  The barcode would likely contain the code for Mexico, not Guatemala.

The Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) law has made it easier for consumers to find out the country of origin of certain foods. As of September 2008, the COOL law mandates that fresh meats, fish, shellfish, produce, peanuts, pecans, macadamia nuts, and ginseng bear country of origin labels. In order to be labeled “Product of the U.S.”, the meat must come from animals born and raised in the U.S. and the crops must have been grown here. Beyond that, things get a little murkier. Meat companies are permitted to use multi-country labels, like “Product of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico”, when they can’t verify in which of the countries their animals were born. To add to the murkiness, restaurant foods are exempt, as are prepared and processed foods. The USDA offers a fact sheet for consumers to help them make sense of it.

Imported goods have been subject to the Country of Origin Labeling law for years, but you’ll only see them if you’re the ultimate purchaser. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, “the ultimate purchaser is generally the last person in the United States who will receive the article in the form in which it was imported”. That means that if the ultimate purchaser is a manufacturer who uses the goods to create a different end product, the end product is Made in the USA.

In each column, we’ll sort through all of the confusion to trace the origins of your favorite products. We’ll aim to entertain as we inform. Got a product you’d like us to explore? Send an email with as many details as you’ve got to [email protected]