Opposition persists for new perishables origin labeling rules
Meat and produce shippers continue to warn the nation’s lawmakers of the economic hardship that would result from the implementation of new origin labeling rules.
In the 2002 Farm Security and Rural Investment Act, Congress mandated the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop regulations giving consumers more information about the origin of imported meats and produce. The new rules are expected to take effect on Oct. 1, 2004.
“Under the Farm Bill, the approach USDA has taken to country of origin labeling would be unnecessarily burdensome and operationally impractical for both processors and retailers,” said Kurt Buckman, director of quality systems management for Birds Eye Foods at a House Agriculture Committee hearing Wednesday.
“The guidelines (recently proposed by the USDA) would ‘over-regulate’ by prescribing country of origin labeling rules for products already required to display such labeling, creating the prospect of duplicative, confusing, and even conflicting requirements,” he said.
Other perishable groups opposing the origin labeling rules were the Peanut and Tree Nut Processors Association, Snack Food Association, National Confectioners Association, American Peanut Product Manufacturers, Grocery Manufacturers of America, and American Frozen Food Institute.
“Additional mandatory country of origin labeling requirements do nothing to enhance the safety of the domestic food supply or the health of American consumers,” said Gary Jay Kushner, counsel to the Grocery Manufacturers of America to the committee. “Yet they involve increased costs for producers, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers, and undermine efforts to expand international markets for U.S. products.”
Jerry M. Place, president of Western Nut Co., told lawmakers that rigorous implementation of the origin labeling rules would effectively shut down his small family-owned business.
“Under a mandatory country of origin labeling program as currently contemplated by USDA, we would be required to pre-print each and every one of our gift boxes in advance in every possible combination of various countries of origin,” Place said. “We do not have adequate inventory storage to house the proposed packaging inventory.
“Additionally, it would be virtually impossible to track the movement of individual peanuts as they move through our processing operation from receiving, through processing, on to packaging where the appropriately labeled box would have to be to receive the product,” he said.
The Grocery Manufacturers of America recommended:
* Final regulations should not apply to any peanut products other than in-shell peanuts sold in bulk at retail.
* Exclusion of mixed processed food products, frozen produce and frozen fish from the regulation.
* Remove USDA’s guidelines to display the country where processing occurred.
* USDA should not require multiple countries of origin to be listed in order of predominance by weight.
USDA estimates the costs to implement the guidelines could reach $2 billion.
“Some of the larger corporations in our industry may be able to comply with the proposed regulations because they can push the cost back on the grower or spread the cost over a huge volume. Other large corporations have simply said that they are investigating the option of relocating to Ontario, Canada or Mexico,” Place said.
“Still others have indicated the possibility of exiting the peanut business altogether and concentrating on almonds or cashews,” he said. “None of these alternatives is an option for a company of our size. We would simply go out of business.”
Some producer groups said they don’t have a problem with meeting the origin labeling requirements.
Hugh Warren, executive vice president of Catfish Farmers of America, told the committee the implementation “should prove a minor issue with relatively no additional cost in the processing and marketing of catfish.”
“The Farm Bill labeling provisions for fruits and vegetables is sound in our opinion, and provides the department sufficient flexibility to create a workable set of regulations for the produce industry,” Michael Stuart, president of the Florida Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, testified. “We do not believe it was Congress’ intent to create an untenable burden for producers of covered commodities, or their customers at retail.”
Twenty years ago, Florida imposed a mandatory state law requiring origin labeling for imported fruits and vegetables. The state’s law is believed to be largely in line with what’s expected under the new federal regulations.