(Oct. 10) Excessive record-keeping requirements and the threat of PACA labeling violations and fines likely will keep most retailers from complying with newly released voluntary country-of-origin labeling guidelines, said John Motley, senior vice president of government and public affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based Food Marketing Institute.

“We think it is going to be very unworkable, and we can’t see any reason for retailers to participate in the voluntary program for the next two years,” Motley said Oct. 9. Hope that the U.S. Department of Agriculture would come up with a “silver bullet” and deliver a workable program was met with disappointment, he said.

But Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Orlando, had a more favorable reading of the document the morning of Oct. 9.

“It’s an excellent starting point, but there are a couple of things that concern me to some degree,” he said.

For one thing, the USDA’s requirement to keep records on origin for a couple of years will need further explanation, Stuart said. On the other hand, he said the USDA did provide a flexible labeling process for fruits and vegetables at retail, allowing for fruit stickers and a variety of label options.

However, the labeling regulations did not meet all industry requests. State associations wanted the flexibility of using state marketing programs as their identifier on labels. However, the new USDA rules indicate that state and regional labeling programs, such as Washington apples and Idaho potatoes, will not be accepted in lieu of country of origin labeling.

Motley said retailers believe the record keeping and paperwork requirements of the voluntary program are “absolutely ludicrous.” He noted that paperwork must be kept on demand for 500 to 700 items of fresh produce in a typical retail store, with three to seven suppliers for many commodities.

“Why should we start keeping paperwork two years before we have to?” he asked.

He said country-of-origin regulations on meat are even more unworkable than fresh produce. For example, a label for beef would have to state that a cow was born in the U.S., raised in Canada and slaughtered in the U.S.

“You realize that with the size of that label, you are not going to be able to see what the beef looks like,” he said.

And even with the voluntary program, he said a participating retailer apparently can be fined for a violation of Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act law if a product is mistakenly labeled — another disincentive for retailers.

“I honestly don’t think the American producer understands what they have asked for,” he said. “It’s a good thing we have two years to talk about it.”

Lee Frankel, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, Nogales, Ariz., said importers will not struggle with meeting the information requirements, though he said repackers may have some issues with the regulations.

A lurking issue in all the discussions of country-of-origin labeling is the cost of compliance.

Stuart said the cost of implementing country-of-origin labeling is a marketplace issue.

“It’s nothing that the USDA can prescribe,” he said.

On Oct. 8, the USDA released 18 pages of regulations outlining voluntary country-of-origin labeling for selected commodities at retail, as required by the 2002 farm bill. The covered commodities include fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, peanuts, fresh and frozen muscle cuts of beef, veal, lamb, pork and fish.

Foodservice establishments are not covered by the regulations. Mandatory country-of-origin regulations, prescribed by the farm bill, are set to come into force by Sept. 30, 2004. The USDA said in a news release Oct. 8 that development of mandatory guidelines will begin in April and probably will be based on the voluntary guidelines and subsequent comments on that program. Comments on the voluntary guidelines are encouraged in the next six months, the USDA said in a news release Oct. 8.

The voluntary guidelines, related farm bill provisions and questions and answers on the voluntary guidelines can be found at http://www.ams.usda.gov/COOL.

Comments on the voluntary guidelines may be submitted to Eric Forman, associate deputy administrator, Fruit and Vegetable Programs, at eric.forman@usda.gov.