(June 26) Country-of-origin rules must change from their formula or they will lose fresh produce industry support, United president Tom Stenzel told the House Agriculture Committee on June 26.

However, despite recent controversy about country-of-origin labeling from the livestock industry, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has the power to create a workable set of rules for mandatory labeling for fruits and vegetables, he told the committee on behalf of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association.

“Some of my members will argue that the whole issue has become so complex and potentially onerous that the quick fix is to pass a new law,” Stenzel said in a statement presented during a hearing about country-of-origin labeling.

“Consensus on this issue has never been easy, but our overall reading of the law is that the USDA has sufficient flexibility with regard to produce to implement a fair and practical system,” he told the committee.

In an interview before his testimony, he said the guidelines issued for voluntary labeling would not work if they were adopted as mandatory guidelines. Mandatory country-of-origin labeling, approved in the 2002 farm bill, is set to become the law of the land by October 2004 for fruits and vegetables, pork, beef, fish and peanuts. The USDA has issued voluntary guidelines for labeling, but those guidelines have been widely criticized as too complex and expensive by much of agriculture.

“If voluntary guidelines were the final rules, we couldn’t live with it,” Stenzel said.

Stenzel said the USDA’s final rules on mandatory labeling, expected by September, will tell much.

“Will the department continue on its current course outlined in its voluntary guidelines, imposing huge needless costs and radically altering our ability to deliver fresh produce to consumers? Or will USDA implement a simple country-of-origin labeling system for produce that has minimal impact on the industry, while complying with the issue?” he said.

He said that United’s request to the committee is to urge the department to “proceed with great haste” in publishing the final rule so the industry can consider its options.

“However, should the committee wish to purse legislative modifications to the country-of-origin labeling at this time, we offer to work closely with you in evaluating specific recommendations for improvement.”

Stenzel said the USDA should adopt four main principles in mandatory regulations:

  • USDA has the authority to develop regulations tailored to different commodities, and Stenzel said a produce labeling system could be simpler and less intrusive than the voluntary guidelines. Stenzel said before his testimony that if country-of-origin regulations were removed for meat and not for produce, “so be it.”

  • USDA needs to rely on existing law and regulations wherever possible, Stenzel said. He said retail grocers are legally entitled to rely upon the honest declaration of country of origin by a produce vendor, and he said that eliminates the need for audits or independent verification. “Should a produce vendor present false information, USDA’s COOL should specifically state that a retailer would face no consequences for a willful violation under the act.”

  • Stenzel said labeling of blended product should be simplified. “We urge USDA to propose a labeling system that allows the use of language such as ‘Contains product of country X, country Y and/or country Z.’ “ That would aid fresh produce processors who frequently must change the source of ingredients due to product quality and availability, he said.

  • USDA should use its discretion to comply with the intent of the statute, not create needlessly punitive and disruptive regulations. He said state designations should be allowed as country-of-origin designations. In addition, Stenzel said the USDA should relax enforcement so that retailers would not be subject to fines if country-of-origin stickers fall off during transit. Overall, Stenzel said the voluntary guidelines should be revised significantly or they will fail the industry. “The voluntary guidelines simply fail the ‘laugh test,’ although no one is laughing,” he said.

  • Stenzel said the voluntary guidelines call for unreasonable record keeping — two years’ worth of transactions at store level. “This is absurd,” he said. “There is only one moment in time that verification of country-of-origin labeling matters under this statute; that is at the precise moment a consumer is making a choice at point of sale,” he said.

    Stenzel said it was inconceivable that inspectors would be asking for records on tomatoes offered for sale six months previous.

    In an interview before the country-of-origin hearing, he said debate over country of origin is obscuring other gains the industry is making in the field of nutrition and industry support on Capitol Hill, he said.

    House Agriculture Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., asked Stenzel about the problems that the $2 billion bagged salad industry faces with the country-of-origin guidelines as they now exist.

    Stenzel said voluntary guidelines, if they were adopted as mandatory, would be excessively costly. For example, he said it would require fresh-cut marketers to weigh snow peas and then relabel their bags accordingly.

    He called for a common sense approach that would allow suppliers to list countries alphabetically, and not by volume. In addition, Stenzel said it was necessary to allow retailers the assumption of truthfulness concerning supplier claims of origin.