USDA inflating country-of-origin expense, WGA says

WGA's 3,500 members grow, pack and ship 90 percent of the fresh vegetables and nearly 70 percent of the fresh fruit and nuts grown in Arizona and California, about one-half of the nation’s fresh produce. The organization has been working to get COOL on fresh produce in supermarkets.

The country of origin program was mandated in the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002.

WGA recently submitted formal comments to the Office of Management and Budget and the USDA for the Country of Origin Labeling Program. The federal agencies released a cost estimate of nearly $2 billion for COOL, but WG said the USDA did not consider the methods and data currently in place throughout the distribution system that establish point of origin.

The COOL program calls for mandatory country of origin labeling for perishable agricultural commodities, peanuts, beef, lamb, pork and fish by September 2004. President George Bush signed the new farm bill in May 2002.

“For produce, this information is already available in the chain,” said Matt McInerney, WGA executive vice-president. “Throughout the years, we have adapted to the consumer’s needs and their desire to know where the produce they are buying is grown. It’s the consumer’s right to know.”

In a letter to the USDA, WGA stated that most, if not all, produce cartons are printed or stamped with country of origin labeling, such as “Produce of the USA” and, additionally, a bill of lading accompanies all fresh produce shipments, which provides specific details, such as country of origin.

“It is our expectation that the growers and shippers should not be subjected to any additional economic burden to label. In many instances, this cost is already inherently accounted for at the retail level.” McInerney said.

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