Suppliers, retailers will have to work together

July 21, 2008

By all indications, Country Of Origin Labeling (COOL) rules covering produce will go into effect Sept. 30 – but there’s no need to panic.

“I don’t expect this to be a significant burden on growers,” said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for United Fresh Produce Association (UFPA). “The real debate will be between suppliers and retailers.”

Suppliers and retailers will have time to ease into the new rules, despite the approaching deadline. Guenther expects USDA to implement a “grace period” – perhaps six months, perhaps a year – after Sept. 30, giving the industry time to fully comply with the new rules before they’re actually enforced. USDA set a precedent with the seafood industry, which was given a year to comply with the new rules after they were enacted, according to UFPA.

The produce industry has been waiting for COOL to go into effect since 2002, when Congress passed a law requiring retailers of perishable agricultural commodities to inform consumers of the product’s country of origin at the final point of sale, according to a UFPA white paper.

The original goal was to give U.S. consumers more information about where their produce comes from. The industry is well on its way toward doing that, since more than 60 percent of produce sold via U.S. retailers already meets COOL standards, Guenther said.

He expected the final COOL rules for produce to be released for public perusal by July. They might have come out sooner, but USDA had to wait for passage of the 2008 Farm Bill – which contained amendments to COOL – before it finalized the rules.

So, how exactly do you communicate a product’s country of origin? COOL requirements aren’t clear about that.
“We don’t believe there will be specific regulations on font, size, color or anything like that,” Guenther said. “It’s not black and white.”

The 2002 rules stated that retailers are permitted to inform consumers of country of origin at point of sale “by means of a label, stamp, mark, placard or other clear and visible sign on the covered commodity or on the package, display, holding unit or bin containing the commodity,” according to the white paper.

Fresh – and probably frozen – fruit and vegetables will require labeling, but canned fruit and vegetables will not. Produce packages that contain two or more different commodities – such as a salad mix containing lettuce and tomatoes or fruit cup containing cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelon – will probably be exempt as well, since they’re considered processed items, Guenther said.

COOL originally was supposed to go into effect Sept. 30, 2004, but was delayed twice because of concerns about the regulatory burden on the produce industry. To reduce that burden, COOL stakeholders debated and finally agreed to make certain revisions to the original law. The revisions are contained in the new Farm Bill, according to the paper.

Guenther said the amended rules are more workable and user-friendly. For example, the old rules stated country of origin labels had to be affixed on a product even if a regional or state label already was in place. So, even if a potato already had a Grown In Idaho sticker on it, a second sticker would have to be applied affirming the potato was grown in the United States. Such a redundancy adds to labor and expense, so the industry pushed to remove it. Now, Grown In Idaho, Pride of New York or similar labels are enough to meet COOL requirements by themselves, according to the white paper.

The paper listed other amendments to the original rules:

-Liability for retail mistakes or absence of labeling has been significantly reduced. If a retailer is found to be in violation of the act, USDA must give it 30 days to comply. USDA cannot impose a fine at the end of the 30 days unless the retailer has not made a “good faith” effort to comply with the rules. The same rules apply for suppliers who do not provide country of origin information to retailers (who will not be held liable for misinformation provided by suppliers).

-All proposed fines on either retailers or suppliers found to be in violation are subject to a hearing and are limited to $1,000 for each violation. Also, USDA is barred from new recordkeeping requirements, other than records kept in the regular course of doing business.

The most important thing growers can do to prepare for COOL is to talk to their supply chain partners and make sure there’s an accurate, verifiable labeling system in place that’s understood and agreed upon along every step of the produce distribution chain. Growers, handlers, shippers, brokers, distributors, retailers – everybody needs to be on the same page, Guenther said.



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