ARI SHAPIRO, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne. Here's something that might have helped trace the cause of those recent cases of salmonella: labels. Currently, there is no federal law that requires supermarkets to label where fresh produce is grown. The FDA now says that's complicating its investigation. That will change in September when a labeling law goes into effect. That requires the country of origin to be indicated on fresh produce and certain meats.
To find out what happens now without the labels, Zoe Corneli of member station KALW in San Francisco followed the trail of some shiitake mushrooms.
ZOE CORNELI: After two to three weeks on a cargo ship from China, many imported shiitakes wind up here at the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market.
Unidentified Man: Give me two red chilis and one Japanese eggplant.
CORNELI: Vendors are busy selling all kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables to grocery stores and restaurants. Bill McKinney works for Berti Produce. He's in charge of mushrooms.
Mr. BILL MCKINNEY (Berti Produce): I have shiitakes shipped from local companies, which do have Chinese and local, and some companies only have Chinese. They don't mark the box local, and they don't mark it from import.
CORNELI: They don't have to. Because there's no labeling law, local distributors can take boxes labeled Product of China and re-box them under their own brand name. To find out what local stores were actually selling, we brought McKinney's shiitakes from five supermarkets, no labels.
Mr. MCKINNEY: This one's Chinese. Chinese. This is a local grown.
CORNELI: Of the five, McKinney said three were selling shiitakes from China.
Mr. MCKINNEY: When you pick up a Chinese and you look at it, a Chinese one is dried out, and it always looks that way, dried out. As for when you pick up a local, it's got a darker look, it's got a wet look, and it's meaty-looking.
CORNELI: But, McKinney says, those distinctions may be lost on the average consumer.
Mr. MCKINNEY: Pretty much I'm in a lot of supermarkets. I don't see where it says it's from China or it's from the USA. It's pretty much shiitake and the price. It's always high price. Whether it's China or local, you will pay the same price in the supermarket.
CORNELI: You'll pay the same price. Some grocery stores may pay a third as much for the Chinese.
One of the places McKinney identified as selling Chinese shiitakes is this locally owned supermarket south of San Francisco. The produce aisle is stocked with all the usual lettuces, fresh herbs, fruits and shiitakes in bulk. Co-owner John Garcia was surprised when we asked if he ever sells Chinese shiitakes. He believed his supply was all domestically grown and besides, he wasn't even aware there's a difference.
Mr. JOHN GARCIA (Co-owner, Supermarket): There's definitely not anyone on our staff who knows that. If they knew, I would know.
CORNELI: Garcia was curious, so he went to his back office to look more closely at records from his supplier.
Mr. GARCIA: I have an invoice that says that I got some shiitake jumbos that were imported. It didn't say from where.
CORNELI: Do you have a problem with that as a retailer?
Mr. GARCIA: Yeah, I mean I would like to know where it's coming from, because I never knew this was an issue.
CORNELI: Even if Garcia did know where his mushrooms were coming from, he could choose not to post that information for his customers. That goes for other types of produce, too.
Ed Rose was out shopping for vegetables at a San Francisco market recently.
Mr. ED ROSE: If I saw it was from China, I probably wouldn't buy it. But I just think we need to have the labeling to make the choice, and then we'll make our own decisions.
CORNELI: The confusion over food labeling goes back to a 1930 tariff act that introduced labeling for imported goods. Shortly after its passage, restrictions were relaxed for certain products, including fresh fruits and vegetables.
Barry Krissoff is an economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He says foreign produce wasn't on people's minds back then.
Mr. BARRY KRISSOFF (U.S. Department of Agriculture): In the 1930s, we were much more of a local trader, we bought our fruits and vegetables from local vendors or from regional vendors. So as times changed, there was more of an interest for informing the consumer about those global products.
CORNELI: This fall, the law will update that 1930 act. Everything from shiitake mushrooms to steak - and even tomatoes - will be labeled by the country they came from.
For NPR News, I'm Zoe Corneli in San Francisco.
MONTAGNE: And if you think you can tell the difference between domestic and foreign mushrooms, visit npr.org and find out for sure.