(Nov. 26) An all-but-certain two-year delay in the implementation of mandatory country-of-origin labeling for fresh produce shut a door but opened a window for the controversial issue in late November.

The much-lobbied delay appeared to be accomplished after the House of Representatives filed an omnibus appropriations bill on Nov. 25.

Except for at least some categories of fish, the delay in mandatory labeling at retail until Sept. 30, 2006, applies to all covered commodities, including fresh produce, beef, pork and peanuts.

The delay is expected to provide time for agriculture interests to propose a market-driven labeling plan, though the ability of bringing together disparate interests on the emotionally charged issue is open to speculation.

Reaction to the two-year delay was mixed in the agriculture and produce communities.

Matt Hartwig, a legislative aide to Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said the two-year delay was unfortunate victim of the appropriations process.

“The time to fight the program has passed. … It is certainly a setback for the program and also disappointment for consumers and producers who supported this,” he said.

FRUSTRATION

In Florida, one organization that has been supportive of mandatory labeling expressed frustration in the delay.

“We see it as a threat to the labeling law,” said Ray Gilmer, director of public affairs for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Orlando.

He said the delay leaves country-of-origin labeling politically vulnerable to further attack from opponents.

“We would welcome the notion of trying to get this law back on track and working with the entire industry to do so,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that a handful of lawmakers can undo something you have worked on for many years.”

The Farm Bureau will continue to support the program’s timely implementation, said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, Washington, D.C.

“Congress has the opportunity to do the right thing for all Americans by continuing funding and program implementation for COOL in their final fiscal year ‘04 bill,” he said in a statement Nov. 25.

Matt McInerney, executive vice president of Western Growers, Irvine, Calif., said the two-year delay was inevitable in view of the relentless pressure on the industry.

“Perhaps now stakeholders can have a dialogue on an efficient and cost-effective system that would coincide with the underlying intent of the law to provide consumers with the right to know where their where their produce is sourced,” he said.

The United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Washington, D.C., and the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., said the two-year delay was welcome.

REPEAL POSSIBLE

Tom Stenzel, president of United, said there was substantial consideration in Congress for outright repeal.

“The delay is really intended to make the private sector accomplish the goal of getting more country-of-origin labeling to the consumer without the costs and burdens of the law,” he said.

Stenzel said United has commitments from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Pork Producers Council, the National Seafood Institute, the Food Marketing Institute and the National Grocers Association to work on an alternativeplan.


Bryan Silbermann, president of PMA, said the organization will continue to provide comments to the USDA on the proposed mandatory labeling rules now in rulemaking.

“That still needs to go on because there is a law on the books, and it is still our intention to make our point of view known,” he said.

Kathryn Mattingly, spokeswoman for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, confirmed that the USDA would still accept comments on the proposed rule for mandatory country-of-origin labeling through Dec. 29.

With the conference report for the omnibus bill now filed in the House, Stenzel said final passage is expected when Congress returns. The House is expected to reconvene Dec. 8, and the Senate schedule is not yet decided.