I've finally done some reading up on the Country of Origin Labeling regulations which went into effect September 30 - except that there is a 6 month grace period.
The faqs at USDA could be better written, but here they are
It seems pretty clear to me that these regulations are next to meaningless.
Fish and shellfish have had to be labeled since 2005, but I still find my questions are not always answered at the supermarket. And if you go to a fishmonger that doesn't sell produce, they don't have to disclose country of origin. Ditto a butcher.
In all cases, any food that has had something done to it other than something mechanical (slicing or dicing or grinding in the case of meat, but not peanuts) is exempt.
The produce department of your supermarket must inform you, but the deli department does not need to.
Only fresh and frozen foods are covered. Canned and dried foods have had something done to them.
Chicken that is grown here and goes to China to be cut up - well, you won't be told that.
Offal - not covered. So those chicken livers, where all the toxins are concentrated - who knows where they are from. Only muscle meats are covered.
Labeling does not need to be readable with the naked eye. The USDA notes that stickering of fruit and veg is not 100% effective. No kidding. You need a magnifying glass for much of it.
Foods that are combined with other foods are not covered. Frozen peas, si. Frozen peas and carrots, not necessary. Breaded chicken or fish pieces, no.
Which reminds me - grain products are not covered. This is only about perishable food, which I guess means food that will deteriorate rapidly without refrigeration or freezing.
Some things not covered by COOL legislation are covered by tariff laws. Things that you've noticed have been labeled with their countries of origin for years would be because of this.
It seems to me the best tack is still to ask. If enough of us ask enough questions of our retailers we will encourage them to know where things come from, not just prices. If enough of us not only question, but refuse to buy products whose origins are muddy, and tell retailers about it, we may eventually skew the system so it works to our benefit. Right now it's a nod to us and endless exceptions responding to pressures of various trade groups.
Here's a one page summary
I'm off to the garden where I know the origin of my produce. Santa Rosa Creek, Laguna de Santa Rosa, Russian River watersheds, California floristic region, North America.