(June 30) Although part of the 2002 farm bill, country-of-origin labeling for fresh produce has an increasingly dim future.

That’s the only reasonable conclusion after June 25 and 26 testimony from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the retail community and a produce industry lobbying organization to the House Agriculture Committee.

USDA’s chief economist, for example, said the costs of labeling outweigh any benefits it would bring to consumers.

Bruce Peterson, senior vice president and general merchandising manager of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., testified that the law will weaken U.S. producers by adding costs to the system. And Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, said the industry will not support the guidelines as they now stand.

None of this should surprise proponents of country-of-origin labeling.

Powerful forces have been lining up against it since the passage of the 2002 farm bill. Retailers, in particular, have been vocal in their opposition to the measure.

That’s fine. That’s the way our system of government works. Nonetheless, the law is on the books, and mandatory origin labeling is scheduled to take effect Sept. 30, 2004.

Few on either side of the issue would dispute that the guidelines for mandatory country-of-origin labeling are flawed.

Still, it appears those flaws could easily be corrected.

Take a look at Florida’s law. Unlike the USDA’s guidelines, the Sunshine State’s labeling law has no record-keeping requirements. It also allows retailers, producers and handlers a variety of options — signs, stamps, bags, stickers, boxes — when it comes to keeping consumers informed. Florida also levies fines sparingly in its efforts to ensure compliance with the law.

Nobody wants a system that imposes financial hardship on the produce industry or any of its partners.

What advocates of country-of-origin labeling want is a system that meets the desires of the ultimate customers — consumers.

And what the consumer wants appears to be either forgotten or ignored in this debate.