Country-of-origin labels not ready yet

By Tom Karst

(Oct. 1) Voluntary guidelines for country-of-origin labeling are late out of the gate.

The Sept. 30 deadline for voluntary guidelines for the country of origin labeling came and went, but U.S. Department of Agriculture officials said they expect the proposed guidelines will be out “within days.”

A.J. Yates, administrator for the Agricultural Marketing Service of the USDA, said in a statement late in the day Sept. 30 that the agency was working to complete the guidelines and would release them within days. The 2002 farm bill authorized voluntary country-of-origin labeling of covered commodities beginning Sept. 30 of this year through Sept. 30, 2004. That two-year period would be followed by mandatory labeling guidelines beginning Sept. 30, 2004.

The USDA invited comments on the proposed voluntary guidelines and received scores of responses, spanning the food marketing spectrum from grower to retailer to consumer. Those comments can be read at http:www.ams.usda.gov/COOL/comments.

Retailers may voluntarily label covered commodities — beef, pork, lamb, fish, fresh fruits and vegetables and peanuts for country of origin. The law does not apply to foodservice establishments such as restaurants, lunchrooms, cafeterias, food stands, bars, lounges or similar enterprises selling prepared food to the public.

“Given the short time period for implementation and the complexity of the country of origin provision in the new law, we look forward to receiving additional public comment on these proposed guidelines in the coming weeks,” Yates said in a statement released by the USDA.

Robert Guenther, vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Alexandria, Va., said there will be a 60-day comment period on the voluntary guidelines after they are issued.

“It’s going to be an ongoing discussion,” Guenther said.

Based on comments submitted to the USDA so far, retailers want the burden of country of origin labeling to be put on suppliers. U.S. growers have argued that the regulations on product labeling allow for the identification of state origin and flexibility in size of the labels and print. In addition, a letter from the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas emphasized it is the responsibility of retailers to inform consumers at the final point of sale. The FPAA said suppliers have the responsibility of conveying information and retailers have the duty of labeling the fruits and vegetables.