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New country-of-origin labeling requirements that come into effect this fall should have little impact on the tree fruit industry, says Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council.

Growers are unlikely to have to change any of their practices, but shippers and marketers might have to adjust their computer programs so that invoices to retailers show the origin of the fruit, Schlect said. "I think the biggest headache factors are going to be in the offices of the warehouses."

Jay Fulbright, general manager of Dovex Fruit Company, Wenatchee, Washington, said the COOL requirements won’t affect his company much as it had been gearing up for the changes. "We’ll change some programming in our computers, and that will handle it," he said.

Fulbright said Dovex is in favor of COOL. "I think it’s a good thing because people need to know where the product’s coming from that they’re buying. If there’s a problem with the produce, you don’t want to have everything painted with the same brush."

Requirements

Regulations under the federal Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act already require that the origin be marked on the master shipping container. Consumer packs, such as clamshells or bags, will also need to be labeled to show the country of origin, and producers are encouraged to label individual fruit.

Regional denotations, such as Northwest cherries or Washington apples, may suffice if the origin is understood by consumers, Schlect said, but he expects there will be a move towards labeling products as from the USA, rather than a specific region. He foresees less use of the Washington apple logo, particularly since the Washington Apple Commission is no longer promoting it in the domestic market, and greater use of USA logos. Pears produced in the Pacific Northwest are already labeled "USA pears."

Fruit imported by U.S. packers and marketers will also need to show the country of origin.

Farm bills

Country-of-origin labeling legislation for meat, perishable agricultural commodities, and peanuts was originally included in the 2002 Farm Bill with an implementation date of 2004.

The United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association pushed Congress to delay mandatory labeling. The association argued that it should be accomplished through a system developed by industry rather than the burdensome and costly regulations that the U.S. Department of Agriculture was proposing. But the National Farmers Union and 135 agricultural and consumer groups lobbied Congress to maintain full funding to implement the COOL legislation.

In early 2004, President George Bush signed a law delaying implementation of mandatory COOL until 2006 for all commodities except fish and shellfish.

In 2005, a group called Public Citizen commissioned a survey that showed that 85 percent of consumers wanted country-of-origin labeling and 55 percent had little trust in the food industry to voluntarily provide country-of-origin labeling. The group urged congress to implement mandatory cool as soon as possible.

Public Citizen also said its investigations showed that big agribusinesses had used millions of dollars for lobbying and campaign contributions to influence the Bush administration and Congress to thwart COOL.

A year later, President Bush signed another law delaying implementation until September 30, 2008.

Schlect said there were elements of the tree fruit industry particularly growers who supported COOL from the start because they thought it would encourage consumers to buy their fruit, rather than foreign fruit, if consumers knew which was which. They saw it as a marketing advantage.

However, some in the industry were not in favor primarily marketers because their retail customers were telling them that COOL would be horrendous to deal with in terms of liability and record keeping. The Hort Council backed that position and said it wanted voluntary, not mandatory, labeling.

Five or six years ago, retailers were arguing that consumers were not interested in knowing where food came from, Schlect said, but recent concerns about food-safety issues and food miles have changed attitudes about COOL. Retailers are already providing more signage about the origin of produce because consumers are demanding more information.

Congress modified the law in the most recent Farm Bill to make it less onerous, Schlect said. If a mistake is made and a retailer does not supply the country-of-origin information, the law allows 30 days for the retailer to come into compliance. A shipper or retailer charged with willfully violating COOL is allowed a hearing before the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Fines are limited to $1,000 per violation, compared with $10,000 in the 2002 bill.