Country-of-origin labeling compliance for fresh fruits and vegetables is far from perfect, but retailers and produce suppliers have largely followed the rules of the law, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture official.

Martin O’Connor, chief of the Standards, Analysis and Technology Branch, Livestock and Seed Programs of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, spoke on COOL compliance during a Jan. 19 Produce Marketing Association Web seminar.

O’Connor said officials in all states have completed about 5,000 retail audits since June, with a goal of reaching about 12,700 reviews by Sept. 30. About 3,900 reviews have been processed and analyzed.

For each retail store, O’Connor said there are about 300 separate commodities covered by the law, which translates to about 1.16 million opportunities for compliance among all retailers.

So far, O’Connor said retail reviews found:

  • Thirty-three percent of stores reviewed were in full compliance.
  • Sixty-nine percent of the stores had less than 10 covered commodities not properly labeled; about 97% were labeled.
  • Eighty-seven percent of the stores had less than 25 covered commodities incorrectly labeled; 92% of items were properly labeled.

While the USDA expects improvements, O’Connor said the numbers represent a commendable benchmark for measuring industry compliance.

“It demonstrates the capability of conforming to the requirements of COOL,” he said.

State officials in charge of the reviews typically leave retailers a checklist of the findings; they have 30 days to respond with a description of how they corrected the problem.

Many retailers make immediate corrections, but O’Connor said they must still respond in writing with a description of corrective actions they have taken.

If a retailer fails to respond in 30 days, the agency sends another letter with a 15-day response deadline. If a retailer still doesn’t respond, the USDA could call a hearing and fine retailers willfully ignoring the law.
So far, all retailers have responded to the UDSA after the first or second letter.

In nearly 3,900 reviews processed so far, reviewers have found 44,594 instances of noncompliance. O’Connor’ said that represents less than 4% of compliance “opportunities.”

Reviews found fruit accounted for 15% and vegetables 40% of the noncompliance issues for all commodities.

The most common violation, O’Connor said is lack country-of-origin information at retail, at more than three-quarters of noncompliance issues. Inaccurate information accounted for 11% of noncompliance.

He said the lack of origin declarations on fresh-cut fruit, bagged green beans and trayed tomatoes were common issues. COOL information was also lacking on some packaged herbs and specialty produce.

Another noncompliance issue involves signs not matching price look-up label information, he said.

O’Connor said produce labeled simply as “locally grown” does not comply with the regulation. That issue was evident in some supermarkets during the summer. Likewise, a term like “Pacific Northwest” does not pass muster because it could be interpreted as U.S. or Canadian.

In a question-and-answer session after the presentation, O’Connor was asked if there was an acceptable ratio or labeled items in a bulk display such as peaches or watermelon. He said there is no specific ratio, but suggested that if 60% or more of produce items were labeled in a bulk display, consumers could more than likely find origin information if they were looking for it.

In addition to retail audits, the USDA is conducting supplier audits of 400 covered commodities by September this year.

So far, 59 supplier audits have been completed, representing 91 different entities in the supply chain providing products to retailers.

To date, five suppliers have not complied with the law, with 94% of suppliers in compliance, which is on a par with the retail numbers.

The agency has received about 50 consumer complaints about retail noncompliance with the country-of-origin law. Most of those cases have been resolved, O’Connor said.