(May 20) With President Bush signing the farm bill in mid-May, including country-of-origin labeling for produce, an opportunity presents itself to the produce industry.

The industry has until October 2004 to set up its own system before the labeling becomes mandatory and supervised by the government.

The Packer’s editorial board has been against mandatory country-of-origin labeling for several reasons, including cost to producers and retailers; potential for negative marketing, which could reduce produce consumption; and unfair targets in any food safety scare.

All of these are still reasonable concerns, but consumers have become much more accepting of imports in recent years, and their right to know now outweighs the risks of mandatory labeling.

With labeling becoming mandatory in about 28 months, that’s plenty of time for suppliers to incorporate national origin on PLU stickers. It’s already on many imported items, including the No. 1 consumption item — bananas.

Many retailers incorporate produce origin in displays, so they should be able to figure out what works best in the next two-plus years.There’s no doubt that industry associations will soon form task forces and committees to deal with the issue. They can’t start soon enough.

Ideally, all produce would be marketed on its own merit, but there have been rumblings of protectionist thinking in regards to imports. Marketing “U.S. grown” to capitalize on national pride is nothing to be ashamed of and should work in this post-Sept. 11 world, but bashing imported produce on the same grounds reeks of domestic insecurity and could lead to a significant backlash from consumers and trade partners.

Politics, no doubt, played an important role in the farm bill, with midterm elections looming in November. But while negative advertising works well in politics, it does not work for the produce industry, the upcoming 5 a Day boost or making Americans healthier eaters.