(May 22, 4:32 p.m., PACKER WEB EXCLUSIVE) After six years, it would be hard to say retailers are jumping the gun on the U.S. mandatory country-of-origin labeling law if they ask their suppliers to begin complying with the law.

But leaders of both Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers and the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association are urging patience and pointing to a best-practices document set for release in early June that they say will help the trade implement the law.

Mandatory country-of-origin labeling was written into the 2002 farm bill, but the implementation of the controversial law was delayed first to 2004 and is set to take effect Sept. 30 of this year.

A document from a joint task force from PMA and Western Growers will provide “best practices” for country-of-origin labeling for the entire fresh produce supply chain, said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs for PMA.

In a May 22 letter to members of both groups, PMA-WGA Country of Origin Labeling Task Force co-chairmen Mike O’Brien, vice president of produce and floral for St. Louis-based Schnucks Markets Inc., and Tom Deardorff, president of Deardorff Family Farms, Oxnard, Calif., urged patience “so that no needless requests are made of the supply chain.”

“None of us wants to see unnecessary costs added at a time when all of us are already being impacted by multiple inflationary pressures,” the letter to PMA and Western Growers members said.

“That’s why it is so important that the industry speak with one voice on this, and why we developed this task force as a full supply-chain representation.”

The letter said language in the 2008 farm bill will provide origin information to consumers but will be far less burdensome to the industry than the proposed rulemaking that would have gone into effect without the farm-bill fix.

Means said the best-practices document aims to avoid unnecessary expense and effort by the industry.

“We know there are conversations right now between suppliers and buyers about COOL and what will happen, “she said.

Some buyers may be basing their demands on issues like audits to suppliers based on the 2002 law, she said.

“You don’t need a big audit trail; if the supplier says it is from Mexico, it is from Mexico,” she said.

Means said the best-practices document will take into account the revised version of the labeling law included in the 2008 farm bill passed by Congress. The new language clarified record keeping requirement reduced the fine structure and allows the use of regional and state for origin requirements.

The joint Western Growers and PMA task force has been meeting weekly since early April on developing supplier and retailer best practices for country of origin labeling, Means said.

“Our hope is that these can be used within the supply chain to comply with COOL rules,” she said.

Matt McInerney, executive vice president of Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers, said the task force has about 20 members of buyers and suppliers looking for a total supply chain solution.

He noted that over the last three or four months, suppliers have been receiving sporadic outreach from buyers about country of origin requirements. He said the goal of the task force is an industry solution of what is needed to comply with country of origin labeling and a document to share with the government about outlining the practical, effective and economical approach to compliance.

Meanwhile, she said, by July, the USDA should release revised rules on country-of-origin labeling, reflecting the revised language in the new farm bill.

While a period of “education” about the law is likely when the law takes effect, Means said there is no guarantee there will be a phase-in period of no enforcement.