(Dec. 9) Retailers apparently want to knock out country-of-origin labeling because of its implementation costs, but the effort is not going unanswered by grower organizations.

One produce industry leader said the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recent estimate of $2 billion as the expense of first-year compliance for labeling requirements throughout the food chain is overstated and should be given a closer look.

Ray Gilmer, director of public affairs for Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Orlando, said the USDA’s estimate is serving as ammunition for critics who want to derail country-of-origin labeling.

PUBLIC COMMENT

The Federal Register notice estimating first-year costs of country-of-origin labeling at retail for produce, meat, seafood and peanuts was published Nov. 21. The government is seeking public comment through Jan. 21 on ways to minimize the cost of the program, which is voluntary until Sept. 30, 2004. Country-of-origin labeling was authorized in the 2002 farm bill.

Gilmer said the cost estimates would be given a “reality check” by FFVA and other grower groups.

The USDA apparently didn’t take into account existing systems inventory and record-keeping systems when it estimated costs of developing and complying with country-of-origin record-keeping requirements, Gilmer said.

“There are PACA requirements already set down for record keeping. ... There is no accounting for that in the USDA (estimate),” he said.

FLORIDA EXAMPLE

Gilmer said the example of Florida’s country-of-origin labeling law proves it can work for the entire U.S.

“We want a simple system that works for everybody,” he said. “The report painted by USDA is of a complicated, costly system.”

The USDA’s estimate of $2 billion in first-year compliance costs prompted calls for alternatives from the Food Marketing Institute, a Washington D.C.-based association for retailers.

“Let’s act now before the food industry crashes into this iceberg,” said Tim Hammonds, president and chief executive officer of the Food Marketing Institute in a Nov. 25 news release.

Gilmer said the FFVA will ask the USDA for more details on the cost estimates, including the USDA’s number of participants and the man-hours estimated to maintain the record-keeping system.

He said chain stores can develop a common system for record keeping on country-of-origin information, which will save on the amount of time each individual stores has to devote to devising a system.

Gilmer said labeling provides a built-in benefit, aiding food security efforts and protecting against foodborne illnesses.