(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.