(March 21) More than five years after mandatory country-of-origin labeling at retail was written into the 2002 farm bill, the controversial statute should become law later this year.

The industry shouldn’t hit the panic button, but it is time to prepare for coming mandatory country-of-origin labeling at retail for fresh fruits and vegetables, according to a document published by the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., in mid-March.

Retail industry leaders contacted March 20 said farm bill passage is needed to make the mandatory labeling law easier to deal with.

“We need to get the farm bill passed so we know exactly what the law is going to require the industry to do,” said Bill Greer, spokesman for the Food Marketing Institute, Washington, D.C. “There are some unknowns out there.”

Greer said the country-of-origin labeling language in the new farm bill is much more favorable than the 2002 farm bill.

“It will give us more flexibility and allows state labels to satisfy the origin labeling requirement,” he said.

The United Fresh “white paper” was compiled by Autumn Veazey, director of federal legislative affairs for the association, and highlights changes to the 2002 law that are contained in the pending farm bill.

Revisions include a provision that the USDA cannot fine a retailer unless that retailer has “not made a good faith effort” and “continues to willfully violate the act.” Also, retailers will not be liable for misinformation from suppliers.

Veazey was traveling and unavailable for comment on March 19.

RETAIL PREPARATION

Mike O'Brien, vice president of produce and floral for St. Louis-based Schnuck Markets Inc., said he hadn’t seen the United Fresh document but was generally pleased with the chain’s progress in preparing for the labeling law.

Given the expected changes in the regulations offered in the new farm bill, O’Brien said the law is more palatable for retailers than was originally proposed.

The key to effective compliance will be making sure that country-of-origin information is on all Price Look-Up labels. O’Brien said that a recent internal audit by Schnuck Markets showed that not all PLUs had that information.

“It is not 100%, but it is not far off,” he said. “With a little bit of work with our suppliers, we will get there.”

Meanwhile, O’Brien is most concerned about items like asparagus and cucumbers, which are not easily labeled with a PLU sticker.

“The emphasis will be to make sure the country-of-origin information is on the product itself,” O’Brien said. “We don’t ever want to unintentionally mislead a customer.”

In the COOL paper, Veazey said it appears likely that some form of mandatory country-of-origin labeling will go into effect Sept. 30, but it’s unlikely the USDA will begin actual enforcement on that date.

Still, the United Fresh document recommends that suppliers add country-of-origin labeling to packaging/labels at the earliest opportunity and put systems in place to correctly identify all products’ country of origin.

Retailers shouldn’t require 100% stickering unless USDA regulations require it, according to the paper.