(June 20) The mandatory country-of-origin labeling law for meat and produce that passed five years ago should be implemented by next year, a Congressional agricultural leader said in mid-June.

House Agriculture Committee chairman Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., vowed the twice-delayed labeling rule would be implemented by October 2008. Meanwhile, the Agricultural Marketing Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, on June 20 reopened the comment period for two months.

“We are not going to be putting off COOL anymore,” Peterson said June 20.

Peterson and ranking House Agriculture Committee member Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., issued a letter to meat industry leaders in early June, asking them to come to a consensus on what is needed to adjust the law to make it workable. A source close to the committee said Peterson has not sent a similar letter to produce industry leaders.

However, Peterson believes country of origin labeling law for fruits, vegetables and meat will be tweaked in small ways, but would be implemented by 2008.

TWICE DELAYED

COOL was originally scheduled for implementation in 2004, but twice has been delayed by Congress.

The Washington, D.C.-based Food Marketing Institute has estimated the yearly cost of mandatory labeling would cost retailers $500 million. FMI has argued for a voluntary plan.

Meanwhile, produce industry leaders also have offered a voluntary plan supported by FMI — that includes mandatory triggers if retail compliance lags.

FMI spokesman Bill Greer on June 20 said the organization is talking to retailers about changes they want, but he had no immediate comment.

Produce industry leaders are still hopeful.

“It is good that the USDA reopened the comment period and we will weigh in on that, but the real permanent solution is passing the compromise legislation we have been working on,” said Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C.

Stenzel said June 20 he believes increasing numbers of lawmakers think there are fundamental flaws in a mandatory COOL provision.

The House Agriculture Committee and produce industry are in agreement, but legislators are waiting on the meat industry to reach a consensus, he said.

Former Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee chairman Todd Michael, vice president of Michael Farms Inc., Urbana, Ill., said the industry has been “all together” on a voluntary labeling compromise.

“I haven’t given up hope we can get that (voluntary compromise) passed and supercede the mandatory law,” he said. Meanwhile, he said the reopening of the USDA comment period may provide an opportunity to make the law less costly to the industry if it is implemented.

“As it was presented so far, it is very burdensome to the industry,” Michael said.

“We would like to see the compromise move forward,” agreed Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland, Fla.

Stuart said produce industry leaders met with House Agriculture Committee leaders earlier this year to explain the industry’s voluntary labeling compromise. Stuart said the compromise would achieve substantial participation among retailers while providing flexibility to the supply chain.