Major Produce Trade Associations Come Out Against COOL

US - Two major produce trade associations last week abandoned their neutral stance and registered opposition to mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL), reported Food Chemical News.
calendar icon 18 November 2003
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The fresh produce industry has been divided over COOL, with Florida and Western growers enthusiastic about the new law, but growers in other regions less so, according to Food Chemical News. Last week, the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association asked for a delay in implementing the new law, and the Produce Marketing Association called for outright repeal.

The Food Marketing Institute, which has lobbied the produce industry for months on the COOL issue, could barely contain its glee. "We're thrilled," John Motley, FMI senior vice president, told Food Chemical News. "We're delighted that the boards of United and PMA are willing to look for alternatives."

FMI has accepted UFFVA's invitation for a "summit meeting" of produce industry representatives and food retailers to discuss market-driven alternatives to the current COOL law. "We're willing to talk with anybody about how we can do this better," Motley said. "We're looking forward to some serious conversations."

Tom Stenzel, UFFVA president and CEO, said in a Nov. 10 statement that the organization's board of directors had decided "the time is too short and the rule is too costly to go into effect on Sept. 30, 2004. In addition, extensive member input has shown that the majority of our produce company members support the association taking action to address these concerns."

While pledging to continue working with USDA to improve the final regulations, UFFVA said it is "not confident that the law itself can be implemented without undue burden on the produce industry. Therefore, we are also beginning efforts to seek changes in the law that would permit the industry to come together to construct a more acceptable labeling system that can be embraced by all in the produce chain from grower[s] through retailer[s]."

UFFVA acknowledged that some of its members may hold differing views, but "our interactions with our member produce companies across the country have shown that the vast majority cannot support the rule proposed to implement this law, and instead would favor a delay in implementation to work with the Congress, USDA and all partners in the produce chain to replace this flawed approach with a market-driven labeling system that can truly achieve the worthwhile goal of providing country-of-origin information to consumers."

The group urged Congress "to step back and re-evaluate its rush to judgment with this law. Far too much controversy exists on the potential costs and benefits of the rules implementing the law to require enforcement in less than 11 months. Congress should take the time for careful and cautious evaluation, not a heated rush to meet an arbitrary deadline, and evaluate whether enforcing this law on its hurried timetable truly delivers the benefits that its supporters originally intended."

Robert Guenther, UFFVA vice president for public policy, added, "There's a wide range of support throughout our industry for changing COOL, although there are some pockets still hoping to move it through as is. If this program goes through as is, there will be major unintended consequences and financial liabilities. We are making our push [for change] now in Congress. We're on the right path."

Meanwhile, PMA has come out in favor of an outright repeal of the COOL law, claiming it "will raise prices with no clear benefit to consumers."

"From the beginning, PMA has recognized and expressed its concerns about fundamental flaws in the law, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture cannot change through the regulatory process," the group added. While it said it would submit comments on the proposed final rule, "our participation in that important regulatory process should not be construed as support for the law itself."

The Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, which represents more than 100 companies that grow and import Mexican produce, has also called on Congress to repeal the COOL law. The Arizona-based trade association said USDA's proposed rule "provides no meaningful benefit to any sector in the U.S. or abroad while increasing costs for everyone from the farmer to the consumer."

COOL "penalizes everyone because of higher costs without providing significant benefits," declared FPAA president Lee Frankel in a statement. "USDA's own analysis shows that increased costs to consumers will depress consumption to such an extent, even the U.S. producers that the law was intended to benefit will be injured by a loss of income."

In addition to losing consumers due to higher prices, produce companies will suffer declines in consumption resulting from a decreased variety of products sold at retail and lower quality produce available for sale, Frankel said, adding, "The rationale for this idea stems from the strict consequences for retailers for incorrect signage and the extensive, costly recordkeeping requirements."

Frankel warned that the current retail practice of sourcing produce from several different regions during shoulder or transition periods between major supply sources would stop. "To ease the recordkeeping burden and to minimize potential mislabeling errors, retailers will stop carrying one item from two or three regions, and will use only one supply region until they switch, completely, to the next region," he predicted.

Source: National Pork Producers Council - 17th November 2003

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