Wednesday, April 18, 2012 by Lee Mannering
USDA finds improvements in origin labeling of produce
Yesterday afternoon, I participated in an industry Webinar focused on country of origin labeling (COOL) hosted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For those that missed it, the recording is expected to be available on the USDA website later this week.
This year, USDA’s COOL Division plans to conduct 3,700 retail surveillance reviews; these will be conducted by COOL-certified state officials (typically state department of agriculture staff). USDA also plans to conduct 500 follow-up retail reviews in 2012. A new aspect of these follow-ups includes the gathering of photographic evidence of noncompliance findings – more on that later. USDA plans to conduct 251 supplier traceback audits/paper audits this year as well.
The Webinar addressed the intent of country of origin labeling (“to provide consumers with additional information on which they base purchasing decisions and to ensure the public receives accurate information”) and provided a review of the retail surveillance process, supplier traceback audits, and required records.
Relative to our industry, last year overall retail compliance trends for fresh produce were quite promising, with 98 percent of fruit being compliant and just under 97 percent of vegetables being compliant across 3,966 stores. That said, the biggest noncompliance violations remain no country of origin declarations provided at all (66 percent) or some type of inaccuracy (14 percent) in the declaration such as the declaration on the bulk display sign and the Price Look Up codes not matching.
In general, of the 3,966 stores reviewed, 25 percent had zero noncompliance findings. Slightly more than 50 percent had less than 10 instances of noncompliance findings, while about 17 percent had major noncompliance findings (ranging from 10 to 24). Between five and eight percent of stores had more than 25 noncompliance findings; USDA said it finds that these are frequently found in small independent stores where English may not be the primary language spoken.
In the question-and-answer portion of the Webinar, I asked if USDA – in light of last fall’s GAO report on country of origin labeling implementation – anticipates issuing monetary penalties to retailers with chronic noncompliance problems. The response I received was that the agency hopes to not have to go down the road of issuing fines but it will be gathering evidence (remember the photos I mentioned a few paragraphs ago regarding follow-up reviews?) to present to an administrative law judge to determine if monetary penalties should be issued.