(July 30) WASHINGTON, D.C. — The guidelines for voluntary country-of-origin labeling of fresh produce at retail will be issued by Sept. 30, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is setting an Aug. 9 deadline for public comments.

The voluntary country-of-origin labeling guidelines were mandated by the 2002 farm bill.

Any comments received by Aug. 9 would supplement the comments already submitted, the USDA said. The provisions of the farm bill require that USDA issue the voluntary guidelines by Sept. 30 so retailers can begin labeling country of origin for fresh produce, beef, pork, lamb, fish, frozen fruits and vegetables and peanuts.

Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Orlando, said the main message from the association to the USDA is that they need not start from scratch. Florida has had a country-of-origin labeling law since 1979, and Stuart said the USDA could use it as a foundation for national guidelines.

That thought was echoed by country-of-origin labeling proponent J. Luis Rodriguez, trade consultant to Florida Farmers Inc., Fort Lauderdale.

“We are the only state with a track record,” he said.

Stuart said country-of-origin labeling guidelines for voluntary labeling should be devised so they then can be used when the labeling becomes mandatory.

“It gives the industry an opportunity to ramp it up,” he said.

Rodriguez believes participation in voluntary country-of-origin labeling will be light but said mandatory labeling won’t be sidetracked.

“We’ve got a big investment in this thing,” he said. “We’re going to see this thing through.”

Robert Guenther, vice president of government and public affairs for the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Alexandria, Va., said United will submit comments that will address the issue of creating incentives to participate in voluntary labeling.

Flexiblity in labeling guidelines is important for retailers, said Kathy Means, vice president of the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.

“We will be looking for the most flexibility possible,” she said.

Under the law, retailers may voluntarily label covered commodities for country of origin for a two-year period beginning Sept. 30. The mandatory provisions then become effective Sept. 30, 2004. The full text of the Farm Bill’s labeling provisions can be found at: www.ams.usda.gov/COOL.

The law does not apply to foodservice establishments.

Draft voluntary labeling guidelines will be made available for public comment in late August. All comments, information and data must be in a written format and sent to: USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, Room 2085-S, Mail Stop 0299, 1400 Independence Ave. SW, Washington DC 20250-0299; or faxed to (202) 720-3499; or by e-mail to cool@usda.gov.