ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The American Frozen Food Institute will continue to defend its industry against a "disparaging campaign that questions the safety of frozen-food products," said Leslie Sarasin, the AFFI's executive vice president and staff counsel.
Speaking at a seminar on country-of-origin labeling at the annual Western Frozen Food Convention here, Sarasin sharply criticized the American Alliance for Honest Labeling, which was formed last year to build broad national support for the U.S. Customs Service's front-label country-of-origin proposal. Sarasin expressed concern that the Alliance's media campaign has implied that foreign produce is unsafe.
Manufacturers are currently required to indicate the country of origin on any container with foreign content -- and the markings can appear anywhere on the package. But under the new U.S. Customs Service proposal, the country of origin must appear on the front label. The proposal is partly a response to allegations that packages are not always marked, and that requisite information sometimes becomes illegible after the package is handled. The proposal is "unnecessary, discriminatory, arbitrary and capricious," said Sarasin.
Sarasin said the Alliance, a coalition of growers, state and national associations and one food processor that currently claims about 750,000 members, will continue to push for the front-panel labeling law.
"The National Farmers Union has joined the Alliance," Sarasin said. She added that the Alliance planned to run a series of activities around the country related to National Frozen Food Month, which ends March 31. Sarasin also brought members up to date on the AFFI's lobbying and public-relations efforts to ensure that the plan is defeated.
Sarasin claimed that the AFFI's opposition helped convince U.S. Customs to postpone the rule. The original proposal was issued July 23, 1996, with a 60-day comment period and a proposed implementation period of 18 months.
The AFFI continues to wage a strong campaign, by "communicating with members, prospective members, Congress, foreign government officials and other trade associations," said Sarasin. "Our communications efforts ultimately contributed to the success we had at the end of the comment period."
One of the arguments for front-panel labeling is that frozen products have to be touched when turned over. Sarasin reported that when consumers in an AFFI survey were asked if the coldness of a frozen package prevented them from reading the label, 89% said no.
Sarasin also noted that the AFFI sampled a group of members and industry nonmembers to find out if there was disagreement with U.S. Customs' assertion that the labeling requirement, if given a reasonable amount of time to implement, would not hurt profit margins, nor create higher prices for consumers.
According to Sarasin, compliance costs were estimated from $15,000 to $1 million per company.
Though Sarasin said the Alliance is insinuating that foreign produce is unsafe, Donald Dresser, executive vice president of Bells, Tenn.-based United Foods, denied it. Dresser is the only food processor on the Alliance, and is also an AFFI member. Dresser imports okra and broccoli, but he supports the proposal because he said people have a right to know where their produce comes from.
"I have no desire to scare folks," Dresser said. "If I were to say something along the lines that eating okra is not safe, I would be damaging my own business. We are interested in letting consumers receive information they are entitled to have." Okra comes exclusively from outside the United States, according to Dresser.
The Alliance is sponsoring an "okra challenge," which asks consumers to find labeled products. According to Dresser, "A couple [of companies] do label, but on most you can't find it, or [the package] is not labeled at all."
Sarasin noted in her address that U.S. Customs had alleged that there were marking problems. She also asserted, however, that the agency had failed to prove that the problems could not be addressed by "less burdensome, nonregulatory alternatives."
When SN asked Dresser why the Alliance doesn't simply press for enforcement of existing rules, he replied: "Customs sees the [new] regulation as a mechanism for bringing about uniform compliance by the industry with existing law."