(May 4) CHICAGO — Eleven points of consensus about country-of-origin labeling illuminate the possibility of devising a voluntary plan that might include some government oversight.

Robert Guenther, vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Washington, D.C., released the summary paper on the results of produce industry dialogue at a May 2 workshop at United 2004 in Chicago.

Mandatory origin labeling for fresh produce and other commodities was passed in the 2002 farm bill, but congressional action earlier this year delayed the implementation date to Sept. 30, 2006. That delay could be threatened by proposed amendments on Capitol Hill that would reinstate the original deadline — Sept. 30 of this year.

Even so, some of the drama has been taken out of the issue as the produce and meat industries work to offer Congress a compromise that would allow the lawmakers to repeal the mandatory labeling law.

As far as the produce industry, Guenther listed the just-released points of general consensus as:

  • A comprehensive country-of-origin program for produce should be implemented by using mechanisms such as product packaging, Universal Product Codes, Price Look-Up labels, product tags and signs that allow consumers to reasonably determine a product’s country of origin at point of sale.

  • Existing laws and regulations provide sufficient liability for misbranding, mislabeling and misrepresentation as well as record-keeping requirements. The new program should call for aggressive enforcement of those rules. The industry would recommend that country names be used for foreign product.

  • Customary regional or state commodity branding should be sufficient to satisfy origin labeling of domestic products.

  • Marketers should be able to use a variety of mechanisms to achieve country-of-origin information, including but not limited to stickers, packaging, cello wraps, bands, brad tags, bin and display signs.

  • Bulk displays of produce should contain sufficient information whereby a consumer could reasonably determine where the majority of the products were grown.

  • Within a bulk display, commingling should be allowed if the consumer can reasonably determine the origin of the majority of products in the bin.

  • All blended products containing two or more produce commodities that comply with existing laws and regulations already provide acceptable country-of-origin information.

  • There is no need for regulatory enforcement of country-of-origin labeling as it relates to individual stores, companies or produce marketers beyond those rules already enforced under existing law.

  • There should be a U.S. Department of Agriculture benchmarking and compliance enforcement mechanism that determines on an industrywide basis the amount of product that is being identified for country of origin. This should be a national projectable sample based on surveys and inspection. Based on this analysis, the industry and the USDA should determine whether consumers can reasonably determine the country of origin for the majority of produce sold and establish target levels for country-of-origin labeling and measure results against these goals. The goal of the USDA recommendation would be for the industry to seek continually increased levels of country-of-origin labeling over time, understanding that 100% may be not be achievable in the short term.

  • Should compliance be deemed insufficient, the USDA shall provide guidance recommendations that would provide the produce distribution chain opportunities to improve. After repeated reports of insufficient compliance, stronger incentives to achieve these goals would be developed by USDA.

  • Any Grown in the USA program, should one be developed, should be government, and not the industry. If one is developed, industry participation should be optional. In general, industry members prefer to create their own promotions based on states, regions or brands.

In his remarks, Guenther said the industry generally supports country-of-origin information at retail provided it can be accomplished with flexibility and efficiency.

He said Congress could assist in introducing legislation — possibly even this year — that would represent major elements of the produce industry’s 11 points of consensus.

The reality of country-of-origin information at retail is all but certain, said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape & Tree Fruit League, Fresno.

“We are going to have COOL, but hopefully with the least amount of regulation possible,” he said.

He noted that consumers want more information, not less, from the marketing chain.

However, he said the key issue is who will pay the costs. The statute passed in the 2002 farm bill is too unwieldy and expensive, and it failed to allow for state identification of produce.

Any plan must have the commitment of both the retail and grower community, he said.