So the report isn’t a big surprise to us. Most the recommendations are tweaks to USDA’s systems on this issue – such as making sure only PACA-licensed retailers are reviewed, improve understanding of COOL compliance with state inspectors for more uniformity in reviews, improve the noncompliance rating system, speed noncompliance communications with retailers, follow-up with what they call “willful” noncompliance issues, do more outreach on COOL to retailers, identify national or corporate trends and offer guidance on COOL in general and to help improve compliance.
One of the interesting comments in the report is that, on some occasions, reviewers who return to a store that had a noncompliance issue can find the original issue still in noncompliance and find additional issues. Here’s what the report said: “By analyzing the 1,005 followup reviews AMS initiated between February 2010 and September 2010, we identified 21 retailers who had more instances of recorded noncompliances at the time of the followup than were noted in the initial visits, and whose noncompliances repeated those noted previously. For four retailers, the noncompliances noted in the followup review even involved the same commodity items involved in the earlier noncompliances. While these represent only a small portion of the total followup reviews, they do indicate the possibility that some retailers may be deliberately violating regulations, which may require monetary penalties.”
Obviously we’re not talking about a lot of stores here, but it was something USDA found worthy to note in the report as the agency is seeing that lack of attention by a retailer to noncompliance issues as well as new noncompliance issues may need to trigger stiffer penalties as provided in the regulations. One of the things Lee has heard consistently at the USDA meetings as well as from retailers is that execution at retail is a key issue. Ongoing training with produce personnel is essential. This is an issue we all talked about and commented on when the COOL rules were being written. The staff doing signage at the retail level is often young, part-time, and has high turnover. Keeping those folks trained on proper signage is a challenge for some retailers. We know from previous reports that vegetables have the highest noncompliance rates, and fruits are number two. The main violation is lack of COOL information.