Government statistics show many retailers have struggled with country-of-origin labeling since it became mandatory in the spring.

Incorrect signs for fruits and vegetables accounted for more than half of noncompliance issues for retailers, according to inspectors checking country-of-origin labels.

Through late October, U.S. Department of Agriculture-trained inspectors found 608 stores in full compliance, but 1,424 stores had one or more noncompliance issues, said Sam Jones, spokesman for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

The primary problem for retailers, Jones said, was the lack of country-of-origin labeling on covered commodities. He said that fruit and vegetables account for 56% of the non-compliance issues so far.

“Our understanding is that a lot of the violations are store-level execution,” said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association.

Of the 56% compliance violations that relate to fresh produce, 81% related to not having any origin information on display, Lee Mannering, government relations manager for PMA, said in post on the association’s Field to Fork blog.

Mannering said another 15% of the violations are based on conflicting information.

Means said the early results aren’t surprising.

“It is exactly what we would have expected to have heard,” she said. “We know this would take some training to make sure that this happens.”

Based on store tours conducted independently and with inspectors, retailers are doing well in meeting the requirements of the law, Deborah White, senior vice president and chief legal officer for the Washington, D.C.-based Food Marketing Institute said in an e-mail Nov. 10.

White said hundreds of items in a grocery store must be labeled, including fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, beef, pork, lamb, chicken, certain types of nuts, ginseng, fish and shellfish.

USDA has overseen 2,032 retail reviews through late October, out of 12,741 assigned to state cooperators for June to May 2010, he said.

Bill Cox, USDA AMS spokesman, said 400 audits of the retail supply chain are planned for that period.

Supplier audits

Meanwhile, the USDA said that four out of 26 audits of suppliers identified problems with incorrect origin information provided to retailers, failure to submit records within five business days and not providing the method of production.

Cox said supply chain audits are performed by USDA personnel. Through Oct. 29, 26 supplier audits had been completed and 10 were in progress, he said.

Commodities with one or more completed audits include frozen blueberries, carrot chips, cucumbers, fish, beef, chicken, pork and pecans, Cox said in an e-mail.

Audits in progress included red grapefruit, rainier cherries, brussels sprouts, red yukon potatoes, fish, beef, pork and chicken.

If violations are found, Cox said retailers and suppliers are informed and the USDA asks them to implement appropriate corrective and preventive measures, with findings subject to follow up reviews or audits.

No penalties or fines have been assessed by the USDA so far, Cox said.

Means said according to the COOL law, retailers and suppliers would be fined only if there is a willful disregard for the law and no attempt to comply.

“All or our retailers that we have spoken to about this are on board with COOL and on board with getting the job done with those things under their control at their stores and working with their suppliers,” Means said.

White said the law recognizes the challenges in labeling hundreds of items and includes provisions that give companies a chance to fix mistakes.

“Under the law, retailers and their suppliers who are making a good faith effort to comply are not subject to fines and penalties,” she said in the e-mail.

Still, she said implementation of the law has required significant education both of retailers and state inspectors on issues that include:

  • What products are covered;

  • Specific information allowed: Only produce, for example, can be labeled by state or locale;

  • The large number of items and countries involved, notably in the produce department; and

  • The high turnover of perishable products from many different countries, in particular bananas, which might come from as many as eight countries on a rotating basis.

White said retailers are working with government inspectors tomake sure the law is implemented consistently and according to the law. Meanwhile, she said retailers and suppliers are working together to look at better ways to label bulk items such as potatoes, onions and green beans.

“The more products that can be labeled by growers and shippers — which know the origin of foods and have the documentation — the easier it will be for retailers to comply,” she said in the e-mail.