(May 21) Failing to win the approval of a dozen fruit and vegetable grower groups, legislation that would repeal mandatory country-of-origin labeling and replace it with a voluntary plan was simmering in the House Agriculture Committee late the week of May 15.

There was speculation about the timing of introduction of legislation that would be an industry-sponsored alternative to the mandatory labeling law that was passed in 2002 and will take effect in 2006.

“We’re waiting to see what the Congress wants to do,” said Robert Guenther on May 20.

Guenther, United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association’s vice president of government affairs, had no further comment on the prospects for the potential legislation.

Bryan Silbermann, president of the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association and Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for PMA, were traveling and could not be reached for comment.

On May 14, the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association said the House Agriculture Committee was close to introducing legislation that would repeal mandatory country-of-origin law and replace it with a voluntary system.

The legislation was developed by a coalition of national organizations including the Food Marketing Institute, United and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

A group of 12 organizations representing fruit and vegetable growers sent a letter to the House Agriculture Committee leadership on May 14 that stated the groups could not yet take a position on the legislation, the FFVA said. Ray Gilmer, director of public affairs for FFVA, said May 20 he could not disclose the full list without permission from the groups.

In the letter, the group said they were committed to work with lawmakers to reach a consensus on finding a solution that would result in a high percentage of commodities being labeled at retail.

“There is a lack of consensus on the approach,” said Mike Stuart, president of the Orlando-based FFVA.

Absent incentive to drive participation, he said, the legislation may not have enough support.

“The legislation didn’t specify any standards or thresholds,” added Charles Hall, executive director of the LaGrange-based Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Association.

Hall said he did not have time to have his board fully evaluate the legislation late the week of May 9.

While the mandatory program is not cost-effective, Hall said a voluntary program that offers no incentive is not preferred, either.

“We would like to see (a voluntary labeling system) as long as the produce industry is moving closer to 100%,” Hall said.

Matt McInerney, senior vice president of Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers, said Western Growers also was among the grower groups that needed more time to study the language of the possible legislation. He complimented the House Agriculture Committee for considering the opinions of the entire supply chain.