(May 19) ORLANDO, Fla. — A handful of retailers expressed concern, but Florida produce growers were adamant in their support of a national country-of-origin labeling law during a listening session conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture May 14.

An overflow crowd of about 200 at the Orange County Administration Building listened to consumers, growers and produce industry groups back the labeling law, which goes into effect Sept. 30, 2004, as part of the 2002 farm bill. It affects fruit, vegetables, peanuts, beef, lamb, pork and fish sold in the U.S.

The exception were members of the cattle industry who were concerned about the complexities of record keeping the law will require, as were retailers who believe the task of record keeping is unmanageable.

“Our stores just don’t have the space to maintain records,” said Randy Roberts of Lakeland-based Publix Supermarkets. “Also, we have an online service in south Florida called Publix Direct. Orders can often be placed days in advance of delivery due to a customer request. Someone could order bananas from (one) country and by the time they are delivered, depending on inventory, they could be from another country. How are we supposed to handle that?”

Retailers, suppliers and growers that don’t comply with record keeping will be liable for fines up to $10,000.

USDA officials hope to implement the law using many of the same features Florida has used for the past 24 years with a similar country-of-origin labeling law.

Many spoke in favor of the Florida law and its merits, but a spokesman from Jacksonville-based grocery chain Winn-Dixie Stores Inc. disagreed.

“We’re hearing how the Florida law and the federal law are the same. They’re not,” said Winn-Dixie vice president Randy Hutton. “Under Florida law there are no audits, no audit trail, no record keeping and there’s no $10,000 fine. What has been proposed is unworkable.”

J. Luis Rodriguez, a spokesman for Florida Farmers Inc., Fort Lauderdale, and ta key figure behind the 1979 Produce Labeling Act in Florida, said the key is listening to the American consumer.

“If we had listened to the industry 25 years ago, Florida would never have passed the law,” said Rodriguez. “And there would probably be no national country-of-origin labeling law to discuss today. There is no reason why consumers should be denied their right to know where their food is grown. All of us want to know what we’re eating.”

The USDA estimated the cost of implementing the law could reach $2 billion per year, but that figure has been questioned in many circles.

“A lot has been mentioned said about the cost of labeling,” said Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association. “We recommend the USDA revisit it.”

Richard Kilmer, a professor at the University of Florida, said the figure for labeling nationwide is much lower than the USDA estimate, according to a study conducted by researchers from the University of Florida, Auburn University, Iowa State University, Kansas State University and Purdue University.

“Our team put the cost at $63 million to $193 million, which is 90% less than the USDA estimate,” said Kilmer. “We believe (the law) can be implemented successfully.”

Frank Johns, chairman of the FFVA, suggested guidelines for fruit and vegetables be separate from other commodities.

FFVA’s Stuart proposed a simple “USA” designation on produce products, as opposed to a “product of the USA” designation and urged a record-keeping program that would follow the guidelines set forth in the Perishable Agriculture Commodities Act.

“We need to allow retailers flexibility and utilize existing paperwork,” said Rick Roth, president of Roth Farms Inc., Belle Glade. “This is something that is workable and cost effective. Producers and retailers can work together to benefit the consumer.”

“We suggest five things,” said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange. “Those things are: keep the program simple, depend on records that exist, separation of various commodities, truthfulness when information is conveyed through the system and utilize state agencies that are already conducting country-of-origin investigations. We suggest the USDA follow that reasonable way of doing business.”

Florida Secretary of Agriculture Charles Bronson said common sense is the key.

“If we use a logical approach, we can accomplish this and protect the public,” he said. “We’re looking for common sense solutions to record keeping and hope the law allows us the flexibility to make that work.”

The listening session was the sixth of 14 scheduled around the nation through the end of June. Others are June 4 in Cody, Wyo.; June 6, Billings, Mont.; June 12, Sacramento, Calif.; June 19, Baton Rouge, La.; June 24, St. Paul, Minn.; and June 26, Lancaster, Pa.