(July 27) Fresh produce industry lobbyists negotiated key farm bill changes July 24 that leaders of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association and the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association say will ease the burden and cost associated with mandatory country of origin labeling when the law becomes effective Sept. 30, 2008.

The 11th-hour changes to the House Agriculture Committee’s version of the farm bill were brokered between members of Congress, industry lobbyists and consumer groups. While keeping in placing mandatory country of origin labeling, the new language takes away penalties, record keeping requirements and allows marketers to use state and regional designations for origin.

The changes to COOL provisions were folded into a large manager’s amendment of the House Agriculture Committee’s version of the farm bill. The full House was expected to consider and vote on the farm bill late in the day July 26. The outcome of that vote was clouded July 26 by objections from Republicans over new tax provisions to fund the farm bill.

Meanwhile, the Senate Agriculture Committee has said it will work on its version of the farm bill in September. When the Senate passes its version of the farm bill, a conference committee will be appointed to come up with a unified bill later this year.

The new language was approved by Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif., author of the mandatory country of origin labeling amendment that became law in the 2002 farm bill but has yet to be implemented.

“The date is not changing, though there are some reasonable accommodations made to try to ensure that implementation is not burdensome either to producers or retailers,” said Frank Cullen, chief of staff for Bono’s office. “I think we have reached an agreement that will benefit consumers and allow implementation to move forward in a very positive way.”

PLAN B

While the industry’s favored approach to country of origin labeling was a voluntary plan with mandatory triggers, the political environment ruled out that approach, said Tom Stenzel, president of United Fresh. Imports of tainted food from China played a part in that reality, he said.

Stenzel said lobbyists worked on the eventual compromise in marathon sessions starting the afternoon of Friday July 20 and concluding at about noon on July 24.

While the Food Marketing Institute was involved in the talks, it didn’t necessarily endorse the outcome, Stenzel said.

“This is actually a produce deal,” Stenzel said. “It’s not that FMI opposes this. They said they like this, but they still don’t think it is enough.”

However, Stenzel said FMI was appreciative of what produce has done to improve the law. Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for PMA, agreed.

“This is a vast improvement over the 2002 law in terms of penalties and audits,” Means said. “Retailers can take their suppliers’ word on origin,” she said, adding that state and regional identification of produce also is a big win.”