Country of Origin Labeling — A Sign of The Times
Industry Scores Victory for Labeling Law
No other issue mattered more to most FFVA Members than country of origin labeling. To be sure, there are dozens of important concerns for Florida’s fruit and vegetable industry, but getting a national labeling bill passed, especially since enactment of NAFTA, has been a top priority for hundreds of Florida growers.
In May, when Congress approved the conference report on The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002, it launched a new standard for consumer awareness about where fruits, vegetables, meat, fish and peanuts are produced. Contained within the 421 pages of legislation in the new farm bill are provisions for country of origin labeling at the point of sale for these food products. Mandatory country of origin labeling will become law in September 2004. Until then, supermarkets may voluntarily label the covered commodities to denote their country of origin. Regarded as groundbreaking legislation for the produce industry, the new labeling law will finally give U.S. producers a more consistent identity in the retail marketplace.
“I am so pleased. I think it is a great step forward for the American consumer,” says FFVA Board Member Teena Borek, who grows vegetables in South Florida. “This is going to help some of the hurt caused by NAFTA.”
Ironically, as important as labeling has been for Florida producers, FFVA intentionally kept a relatively low profile during the months campaigning for passage of the House and Senate labeling bills – not an easy objective given the high activity of FFVA and other Florida organizations on the issue.
“Dating back to the late Rep. Sonny Bono’s first labeling bill in the mid-1990s, we started introducing the concept of country of origin labeling to consumer organizations and other agricultural groups, steadily building support for what it could do,” said Ray Gilmer, FFVA’s director of public affairs. “It was important that the labeling bill be associated with a diverse mix of organizations from around the country. We were careful not to put a strong Florida brand on the labeling campaign.”
Because the Senate labeling bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), included provisions for labeling meat, the pro-labeling coalition quickly shaped into a broad alliance of producer organizations representing several states and farm products. As the House and Senate bills gained momentum, especially after their amendment into the new farm bill legislation, more than 100 agricultural and consumer groups signed on in support of a mandatory labeling law.
“The best thing [about the new farm bill], perhaps, is country of origin labeling for fresh fruits and vegetables,” said FFVA member Frank Bouis, a citrus producer. “For the first time, fruit and vegetable organizations, joined by other sympathizing groups, succeeded in getting some real attention and consideration [in the farm bill].”
Among the many Florida grower organizations that worked on or contributed to the labeling campaign are Florida Farmers Inc., Florida Tomato Exchange, and Florida Farm Bureau Federation. Several other Florida agricultural groups and individual growers lent their support through coalition letters and lawmaker outreach.
“[Based on a member alert sent by FFVA,] I contacted all of the Florida representatives and senators and told them how, as a grower, I felt consumers should be given country of origin information,” said FFVA board member Paul Orsenigo, who grows leafy vegetables in Palm Beach County. “I think consumers have a built-in loyalty to [foods from] this country.”
Marketplace Gears Up for Labeling
Florida growers don’t need surveys to tell them that consumers will embrace the new labeling standard, even though national research consistently says consumers favor knowing the country of origin on produce. For growers, feedback from consumers, friends and family is proof about the desire for country of origin information.
“My wife likes to know where her produce is coming from, and if my wife wants to know, I suspect other consumers do, too,” says FFVA Vice Chairman Frank Johns, who grows vegetables in Hastings.
“I can’t tell you how many people move out of Florida, and they call me up and say, ‘Teena, we don’t know what we’re buying anymore,’ ” says Borek.
Yet retailer groups have steadfastly claimed that origin labeling is unnecessary and costly. Requirements to segregate and label foods from different countries were unreasonable, they said. Further, retailers have said the costs will have to be passed on to the consumer, even though that cost equates to less than one cent per shopping visit. And amid the rhetoric about costs and complexity, Florida supermarkets have admittedly managed to comply with the state’s country of origin law on fresh produce, in effect since 1979.
“I hope the produce buyers take the high road and understand that consumers need to know where their fruits and vegetables come from and they need to make an informed choice,” says Johns.
“We’re not sure what the benefit is to the consumer,” said Mickey Clerc of the Winn-Dixie retail chain in the May 3 issue of the Orlando Business Journal.
More Sales for U.S. Growers?
A year ago, during farm bill hearings in the House of Representatives, lawmakers asked specialty crop organizations if country of origin labeling would ensure better market shares for domestic producers. Regrettably, the dynamic nature of produce marketing – with daily shifts in supply and demand – make it difficult if not impossible to track buying trends based on country of origin information alone. Pricing, quality and availability change constantly.
“That’s the question isn’t it?” asks Charlie Matthews, director of FFVA’s Marketing and Membership Division. “The new labeling law will help us market the advantages of U.S. products to consumers, but how much it will help remains to be seen.”
“I’ve been to Mexico enough that I’ve seen what goes on down there with the treatment of children and the use of insecticides,” says FFVA Board Member Glenn Dickman, a Ruskin-based tomato producer. “We might have some stronger sales, just because people feel more comfortable buying [domestically grown produce].”
“If our product is good, they’ll buy from us, but our product has to be good,” says Borek.
Even before the law is enacted, labeling opponents are making noises about fighting the impact of the new labeling requirements, perhaps attempting to influence the rulemaking process at USDA. Down the road, the benefits of the labeling standard may also be questioned, raising the possibility of weakening the law in future legislation.
“It makes sense for our industry to track the impact of the new labeling law, and to be ready to demonstrate its usefulness to consumers,” says FFVA’s Gilmer.
And if consumers benefit, so might retailers, say some FFVA members. More informed customers are more likely to make smarter purchases, resulting in greater overall satisfaction.
Says Borek, “I think the stores will be happy in the end.”