(Jan. 27) ORLANDO, Fla. — Industry representatives are saying the U.S. Department of Agriculture overestimated the cost of industry compliance with voluntary country-of-origin labeling guidelines and that suppliers may not have to play as big of a role in record keeping as the USDA recently indicated.

SMALL BURDEN

In November, the USDA estimated that cost of compliance at more than $2 billion for the U.S. food chain. Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, said a relatively small amount of that cost would apply to the fruit and vegetable industry.

“From the perspective of the (fruit and vegetable) industry, this applies to less than 20,000 businesses,” he said. “Therefore the impact on this industry would be minimal.”

Stuart based the figure on the number of Red Book Credit Services listings of firms that supply perishable products to retailers, and he pointed out that it represents less than 1% of the USDA estimate.

Stuart said the USDA based its numbers on a total number of 2 million commercial farms, ranchers and fishermen in the U.S. In a letter to the department, he said only a small number of those would be affected by the requirements.

“They just grabbed the biggest number they could find,” he said. “If you refine down that list from the point of view of the fruit and vegetable industry, it’s negligible.”

In his letter, Stuart cited a 1997 Census of Agriculture from the USDA itself which listed 11,830 vegetable, sweet corn and melon producers and 25,207 fruit, nut and berry producers that represent 95% of all sales of those commodities.

In a letter to the USDA, Western Growers, Newport Beach, Calif., agreed with the FFVA, adding that the level of record-keeping required of the produce industry was overestimated by the USDA and that, therefore, the cost of that paperwork was overestimated as well.

“We do believe the cost is significantly overstated,” said Ken Gilliland, manager of transportation and international trade for Western Growers. “A lot of these proposed regulations and requirements are already in place in the produce industry. The USDA may be duplicating a lot of these procedures.”

KEEPING TRACK

Stuart said the record keeping that would be needed to comply with the guidelines does not necessarily apply to those in the produce industry. The statute requires a record-keeping system from “anyone who prepares, stores, handles or distributes a covered commodity for retail sale.”

In his letter, Stuart said the statute “specifically did not include ‘persons engaged in the business of supplying a covered commodity’ in the subsection that prescribes record keeping.” He added that even if the records were required, they would be duplicating information already required by the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act.

The statute did, however, require that suppliers provide country-of-origin information to retailers. Stuart said most companies already provide this information, so the cost would be negligible.

“Virtually every carton of fruits and vegetables shipped in this country has an origin/destination label on it,” he said. “It’s a labeling violation to put anything false in that box.”

Gilliland agreed, adding that Western Growers does not want to see added regulations put upon the produce industry.

“There is a trail there you can follow to determine where it originated,” he said. “Rules and regulations already in place should pretty well take care of the need, if there is a need, to determine the origin.”

Meanwhile, in response to requests for extensions from several organizations, the USDA has extended the comment period on whether the record-keeping requirements are necessary. The original notice for this was published in the Nov. 21 Federal Register.