(March 29) The coalition formed by the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association to devise an acceptable country-of-origin labeling plan for fresh produce conducted its first summit behind closed doors at United’s Washington, D.C., headquarters March 5.

With the clock ticking toward the delayed implementation of mandatory labeling, which was pushed back two years until Sept. 30, 2006, the coalition has an admirable aim: an industry-driven program. In plain English, that means voluntary.

That’s fine. Any plan to let consumers know where their food is from is the right thing to do. If the produce industry can reach consensus on a plan that also is acceptable in the halls of Congress, that’s clearly the way to go. Few would argue against a program devised by the industry that meets consumers’ needs, especially when the alternative is a federally mandated plan.

About 20 people attended the summit. They represented a broad segment of the produce industry: association leaders, growers, retailers and middle marketers. That, too, is as it should be.

There’s only one problem.

The summits should be open forums — with reporters present. That’s the only way for those throughout the industry to know what programs its leaders are considering. And it’s the only way the rank and file have a chance to react to the proposals.

After the first gathering, attendees would not talk on the record. Tom Stenzel, United’s president, described the meeting as a “good session.” But he failed to provide specifics.

If the coalition is to be successful, it needs to be more open with its constituents.

Stenzel has criticized the passage of the mandatory provision as part of the 2002 farm bill, saying, “The issue wasn’t debated or discussed with the industry.”

It should be now.