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Buyers consider the source

At the peak of Washington's annoyance over French and German foot-dragging on the war in Iraq, a colleague dropped by with a list of French companies. An activist group had offered the list as a guide for boycotters.

Many of the firms appeared to be firmly Gallic. The multinational nature of the corporate world also produced some surprises. Carmaker Nissan, for example, was cited. (Renault now owns about a 45 percent stake.)

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Such lists emerge whenever the United States clashes with another country. Consumers wave their clout like a cudgel.

Avoiding a nation's goods, however, is largely symbolic, and often a short-term proposition.

It's not always about striking back at a perceived transgressor. "Buy American" campaigns also are often made out to be about jobs.

The US Defense Department was reportedly set to sign a big contract with a highly regarded German sealant firm for a Pentagon job, until an Ohio congressman got wind of the deal last month and strongly suggested hiring an Ohio-based firm instead.

For average consumers, purchasing isn't usually so political. In the end, many shoppers go with the best deal, splurging only where quality matters most to them - and maintaining only a passing interest in a product's country of origin.

The food we eat could represent a special case, now that food safety has become a major homeland- security issue.

Fruits, vegetables, and especially meat - which is often sold ground up and mixed - have long been imported in great quantity.

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Now, a battle brews over how much consumers ought to be told about their edible imports' origins.