(Dec. 31) The all-but-certain two-year delay — until Sept. 30, 2006 — in the implementation of mandatory country-of-origin labeling for fruits and vegetables presents a rare opportunity for the fresh produce industry.

While final passage of the omnibus appropriations bill, which will delay mandatory labeling, is not expected until early next year, the deal, for all intents and purposes, is done.

The delay came after intense lobbying from the powerful foes of country-of-origin labeling. The retail community has opposed the measure from the start, and the largest produce industry trade organization — the Produce Marketing Association — has called for the repeal of the law. So has the industry’s voice in the capital — the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association.

OPPONENTS, PROPONENTS

Opponents maintain the costs and record-keeping requirements of the law simply are not worth any benefits the measure would yield.

On the other hand, proponents, primarily the grower community, almost always cite the consumers’ right to know where their food is from.

Some say the backing of growers is prompted not by their concern for the ultimate customer, but by a thinly veiled attempt at protectionism, pitting foreign produce against that grown in the good ol’ USA.

Be that as it may, there’s opportunity aplenty in this dispute.

And United has stepped to the forefront.

Tom Stenzel, United’s president, and the association’s board have called for a summit meeting, bringing all facets of the produce industry together to devise an acceptable country-of-origin plan.

As Karen Caplan, United chairwoman and president and CEO of Frieda’s Inc., Los Alamitos, Calif., wrote in The Packer on Nov. 17:

“… United invites all interested produce and retail organizations to come together in a cooperative effort to increase consumer information on country of origin and establish a working framework that provides the benefits that supporters of country-of-origin labeling desire without the extreme costs and market disruptions of this law.

And therein lies the opportunity. The opportunity for the produce industry to address the consumers’ right to know, regardless of whether they’re clamoring for it. Quite simply, giving consumers this information is the right thing to do.

And the opportunity to do such in an open forum.

That’s right, an open forum — with reporters present. That’s really the best and easiest way for those throughout the industry — and on both sides of the issue — to know what their leadership is pondering. And it’s a simple way for that leadership to get its ideas, untainted by association or corporate public relations staffers, to the industry.

And it’s clearly the way to build consensus on this divisive issue.

MORE EXPLANATION

No longer will the mantra — “I’m not opposed to country-of-origin labeling. I’m just opposed to this bill.” — of opponents of mandatory labeling suffice. And no longer can proponents of such labeling hide behind the banner of the consumers’ right to know when their motives obviously are less pure.

It’s time to take off the gloves and speak honestly and openly.

It’s time to build a consensus on labeling.

It’s time to do the right thing.

It’s time to act.

United’s call for a summit is praiseworthy. And PMA’s endorsement of the idea is heartening.

Now let’s hear from the retailers.

And let’s get down to work.