They did it again. Congressional appropriators got together in late October and decided to delay implementation of the 2002 country of origin labeling bill until 2008. As far as anybody can tell, the rationale was to allow the industry and Congress more time to hammer out any perceived problems with the COOL law.

The reason I say they did it again is because this happened in 2003 — House and Senate negotiators met behind closed doors and delayed COOL. It’s a quirky part of how Congress works — conference committees, when deciding how to reconcile spending bills from the House and Senate, can also do some bill rewriting.

What’s especially disappointing is that this delay comes after months of negotiations within the produce industry to reach a workable labeling compromise.

Earlier this year, a broad industry alliance, representing regional and national produce industry organizations with input from retail interests, crafted a plan for voluntary origin labeling of fruits and vegetables. FFVA has been part of that effort. The plan addresses retailer concerns regarding costs and practicality. At the same time, it contains a contingency provision to encourage robust participation in the voluntary program and thereby ensure that origin information is made available to American consumers.

In a nutshell, the produce industry is trying to make COOL a painless process for retailers and processors. With branding and PLU stickers now in the fresh produce marketplace, most shippers will be providing origin information anyway. By 2008 it might be even more prevalent.

This two-year delay will likely oblige Congress to reopen the country of origin issue in the 2007 farm bill. We’ve been down that road, successfully, before, but it’s not something we’d like to do all over again. But, given the alternative of repeated delays, the farm bill might also provide an open forum for settling the issue to most people’s satisfaction. Of course, we’re aware that labeling opponents will crank up their lobbying to try to repeal origin labeling outright.

Hurricane Wilma

It’s no secret that Hurricane Wilma hurt a lot of producers across most of Florida’s fruit and vegetable production areas. At deadline for this FFVA Digest, FFVA was cooperating with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and other agencies to develop accurate damage tallies. No doubt the storm’s damage will impact the winter harvest in a big way, and we’re working to find ways to ease the pain for producers.

By the way, here’s a reminder to check out FFVA’s retail market surveys, posted each week on the FFVA Web site. It’s a quick check of prices from stores across the country, looking at tomatoes, sweet corn and more.

With volume of Florida crops in question following the hurricane, it’s good to keep tabs on what the retail market is doing. You’ll need a password to get onto the survey pages. If you need one, call us at (321) 214-5200.