Tastes vary on foreign-language food labels

Councilor, mayor split on translations

Ahmad Karageh's store specializes in Mediterranean products. Ahmad Karageh's store specializes in Mediterranean products. (Dominic Chavez/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Katheleen Conti
Globe Staff / January 31, 2008

Revere's diverse community has given rise to a number of ethnic restaurants and grocery stores brimming with international products from countries such as Cambodia, Lebanon, and Thailand.

While these restaurants and stores provide a taste of home for immigrants, they may be confusing for residents who want to try new things but cannot read foreign-language packaging.

This was one of the arguments used by City Councilor George Rotondo when he asked, by way of a council motion, that Revere stores that sell products in a foreign language provide an English translation.

"I embrace diversity. I live it," said Rotondo, whose wife is from Colombia and who can speak or read five languages. "Unfortunately, I believe it's unfair that you go to a store and see something there and don't know what it is, and have to rely on someone telling you what it is."

His colleagues on the council last month approved the motion, which then made its way to Mayor Thomas G. Ambrosino's desk. There it met a speedy death.

"The council passed it and the mayor vetoed it," Rotondo said. "He thought it was 'silly'; he wrote that in a letter to me."

"I just thought it was kind of foolish," Ambrosino said in an interview. "First of all, I don't think we have the authority to have private companies translate their products into English. And I don't think it's an effort in which we ought to be expending our efforts."

Several shop owners, including Ahmad Karageh, agree with Ambrosino. Karageh is the manager at Safy Market on Broadway, which specializes in Mediterranean products from places such as Egypt, Lebanon, and Turkey. The majority of his customer base is Lebanese.

"Ninety-nine percent of our products come from overseas, and 80 percent of it is labeled in English and Arabic," Karageh said. "Sometimes customers want us to tell them the ingredients in something, what it's made of, and sometimes they ask for recipes. They want to know how to use the product."

Had Rotondo's motion gone past Ambrosino's desk, Karageh wouldn't have supported it.

"American people know the items they want already when they come here. Sometimes they come to look around and see. I would disagree with the motion because everything that comes through the border is approved by the [Food and Drug Administration]; it's legal stuff."

Sotheara Ven, owner of New Grocery Market on Shirley Avenue, said she hasn't had any problems with people not knowing what they are going to buy in her mostly Cambodian shop. Many of the products she sells are labeled in English, Khmer, and Spanish.

"And anything from Thailand or Vietnam has to have an English translation because they're imports, as well as the nutrition facts list," Ven said, adding she would have been against the motion. "It's up to the FDA; they require that."

Walnut Avenue resident Richard Hudson, who has lived in Revere for 20 years, said he has seen the city's immigrants change from mostly Latinos to Asians, and that he hasn't had any problems navigating the ethnic markets in his neighborhood.

"That's so stupid," Hudson said of labeling products in English. "I've never heard of such a thing. People don't bother me. They're not going to change their culture because I need to buy something. If someone doesn't understand what they're buying [from the markets], they should just go to Stop & Shop."

City officials, he said, should "worry about the gangs and prostitution on the streets, not what a package says."

But for Rotondo, the matter is not simply about translating a product label but also about economic development. By doing this, ethnic markets would be more inviting to residents of different cultures, he said. Additionally, Rotondo, also an intensive care nurse, said there are international over-the-counter medications being sold in some markets, like antibiotics, that are unregulated and can lead to problems for customers who cannot read the ingredients if they are in a language other than English. This could also cause a problem for health inspectors who won't know what the market is selling, Rotondo said.

"It's something that I stepped upon and I think it's something we should be addressing," Rotondo said. "It's not a major issue, it's not the end of the world; all I'm doing is recognizing that it's there. But most importantly, it's the fact that this is America. My wife came here and my parents came here and the fact is they all had to learn English. When you allow this type of behavior, what you do is that you isolate people.

"This is a community that embraces ethnic diversity and different cultures," he said. "People think [the motion] is foolish, but why is it that banks and in politics do we have things in writing in different languages? For more participation. In a way, this is an extension of that."

Katheleen Conti can be reached at

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