Hammonds was responding to guidelines issued late yesterday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to implement a new law calling for voluntary country of origin labeling for two years. After that, labeling becomes mandatory. FMI believes that the guidelines place an excessive burden on the entire food production and distribution chain, and that they will actually discourage voluntary labeling by retailers.
"Food retailers are being asked to keep records of the country of origin of more than 500 products in each store for two years. The country in which each processing stage occurs for every single fresh or frozen vegetable, every fresh or frozen piece of fruit, every fresh or ground cut of beef, pork or lamb, every piece of fish, and every peanut will need to be identified and documented," said Hammonds.
He added, “All of the documentation required by the program places a particularly unfair burden on the smallest operators."
FMI noted that it is gratified the guidelines require the entire food production chain to be engaged to implement the program. Suppliers could be asked to utilize USDA's new user-fee-based advisory audit system to verify the accuracy of the country of origin information suppliers are required to provide retailers under the law.
"In addition to the endless paperwork, retailers will incur higher costs from the additional labor, signage and displays required for country-of-origin labeling. The average produce department alone carries more than 400 items year-round, and displays change constantly due to supplies and produce perishability. Retailers will face a nearly impossible task putting and keeping the right label or sign in place at the right time.
"Meat products will be even more cumbersome to manage. The guidelines require that all fresh meat products have labels defining the location of birth, breeding, slaughter and processing of the animal from which the product was derived. A simple package of hamburger produced with meat from three suppliers could be labeled "Beef (born in U.S., raised in Canada, slaughtered in U.S.), beef (born and raised in Mexico, slaughtered in U.S.), beef (product of Australia)." The end result will be a patchwork of confusing labels that conceal the product.
"In the end, there is little incentive for a retailer to implement the voluntary program under the constraints established by the USDA guidelines."