(UPDATED COVERAGE, July 16) For the first time, U.S. retailers are being graded on their compliance with the federal mandatory country of origin labeling law.
So far, about 28 states have initiated reviews of retail compliance with the country-of-origin labeling law, U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesman Sam Jones said.
Mandatory country-of-origin labeling has been on the books for fresh produce and other agricultural commodities since 2002, but there were ongoing delays in the implementation of the law amid concerns from producers and retailers about the costs of compliance.
In 2008, the farm bill finally cleared the way for COOL to become law this year.
Retailers must provide country-of-origin information on fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, beef, veal, lamb, pork, chicken, goat meat, fish, peanuts, pecans, ginseng and macadamia nuts.
While the 2008 farm bill includes language that's seen as less costly than the original 2002 law, there is still the threat of up to $1,000 fines per violation for retailers and suppliers.
With the assistance of state agriculture officials, the USDA plans to conduct about 5,000 retail reviews for country-of-origin-labeling compliance between June 1 and Nov. 30 this year, said Jones, spokesman for the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service.
"There hasn't been enough information forwarded to USDA, at the present time, to establish a basis for compliance determinations that would be reflective of the nationwide program," he said in an e-mail July 13.
The USDA provides oversight to enforce of the law. The retail reviews began after a "train the trainer" program for state agriculture officials was concluded in late May by the USDA, he said.
Each state has trained additional staff who will be conducting the reviews, Jones said.
"We anticipate the remaining states to begin the assigned retail reviews in the very near future and anticipate that all 5,000 will be completed by November,' he said.
Each state is responsible for managing their assigned reviews to be completed by Nov. 30, but Jones said he could provide no number as to the reviews performed so far.
Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., said PMA members describe the reviews conducted so far as mostly friendly encounters.
"A lot of the issues were with execution at store level," she said. "For example, somebody moved the turnips and forget to move the turnip sign."
Doug Riley, assistant vice president for retail produce for Hy-Vee Food Stores Inc., West Des Moines, Iowa, said one of the chain's Iowa's stores was audited so far. He said the visit by state officials was unannounced, and the review lasted two two-and-a-half to three hours. He said inspectors checked not only random produce items but also seafood, meat and frozen fruits.
"These folks don't make any suggestions, they just do the audit," Riley he said, adding that it was his understanding they pass their findings to the USDA. "We try to be as much in 100% compliance as we can be - that's all we can do."
Means agreed that retailers shouldn't expect state inspectors to tell them if there is an enforcement issue. "Our understanding is that enforcement comes from USDA," she said. "(State officials) turn in their reports to USDA and USDA is the enforcement arm."
Riley believes that all bagged items coming into the produce department are in compliance with country of origin labeling.
"On some of the bulk items it causes us a little more work at the store, because we have to print out a sign, but so far it has gone without a hitch," he said.
Not everything has gone smoothly for all reviews - Means said state officials insisted on waiting for origin documentation at one store, even though Means said the country-of-origin law provides industry members up to five days to produce the supporting documentation.
Means said a small percentage of the reviews are expected to involve traceback, when state and federal officials will ask for information from the shipper to confirm origin claims.