(Aug. 7) Now that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has published its interim final rule on country-of-origin labeling, the produce industry has to figure out what it all means.

“There’s a lot of confusion about what’s covered and what ‘processing’ means,” said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association. “Another thing people are very confused about is how information should be delivered.”

About 4,000 retail companies with an estimated 36,000 stores will be affected when COOL regulations take affect Sept. 30, but growers and shippers are responsible for supplying product information to those stores.

USDA is allowing origin information to be provided on master containers, documentation or the product itself. In a best-practices document created by PMA and Western Growers, suppliers are encouraged to use all three methods if possible.

“Pay particular attention to products that can’t be labeled, like green beans and a lot of other bulk vegetables,” Means said.

What ‘processed’ means

PMA and Western Growers played host to a Web seminar with USDA officials Aug. 6. Numerous questions were fielded about what products are covered by the new law.

Fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables are included, but there are exceptions for processed products. Processed, according to USDA, includes items that have been cooked, smoked or cured. While that might be straightforward enough, processing also could include packaging multiple covered commodities together, such as a bagged salad that includes lettuce and carrots.

Commingled product also raised questions. Erin Morris, assistant deputy administrator of USDA poultry programs, said that a single commodity with different origins can be mixed in a bin, but all the places the products came from must be listed on a sign or in some other fashion.

She said it was acceptable to use the word “and” in such signs, but “or” and the phrase “may contain” could not be used.

“The origin declaration has to be definitive,” she said.

Lloyd Day, administrator of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, said it had not yet been determined what percentage of bulk product would have to be labeled.

“We have to look at a reasonable number,” said Day, who is scheduled to participate in a session about COOL on Oct. 24 during PMA’s Fresh Summit in Orlando.

Six months of education

Day said USDA will focus on education and outreach, not enforcement, during the first six months after regulations take effect.

The industry can submit comments until Sept. 30.

PMA’s best practices document and its analysis of COOL regulations are available online at www.pma.com/issues/labeling.cfm.

Meanwhile, the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association has a Web seminar with USDA officials scheduled for Aug. 8.

United is offering COOL workshops in conjunction with the American Meat Institute and the Food Marketing Institute:

  • Aug. 12 in Baltimore;

  • Aug. 13 in Chicago; and

  • Aug. 14 in San Jose, Calif.

Registration information is available at www.unitedfresh.org.

The association also has a COOL white paper available on its Web site and has a forum on the topic scheduled Sept. 11 during its Washington Public Policy Conference.