WASHINGTON -- A new round of controversy has been unleashed in the battle over front-panel origin labels, with the American Frozen Food Institute, accusing the U.S. Customs Service here of "stuffing the ballot box" by reopening the comment period.
As reported in SN, Customs reopened the comment period last month for a proposed ruling that would require all imported produce to carry country-of-origin marking on the front-panel of its retail package.
Manufacturers are currently required to put the country of origin on the package in a conspicuous place. The original proposal to amend current regulation and move the marking to the front was made in July 1996.
In the original notice that appeared in the Federal Register, Customs noted, "The question of marking of frozen imported produce has been embroiled in eight years of procedural disputes and litigation," and stated that "a front label requirement would prevent many of the regulatory abuses brought to the attention of Customs."
"It is our position that Customs did not get the response they wanted, so they've taken extraordinary measure to create a new rule-making record more favorable to the proposal," said Steven Anderson, president of AFFI, McLean, Va.
According to AFFI, Customs received 400 letters against the original proposal and only one in favor. However, Jana La Sorte, spokeswoman for the American Alliance for Honest Labeling, claims most of those responses were postcards generated by AFFI and that, in fact, Customs counted only 55 responses against the proposal.
The AFFI has been leading the fight against front-panel labeling, while the Alliance, a lobbying group based here, has gathered support for the Customs proposal this year. The Alliance is a coalition of American growers and other organizations with agricultural interests, including the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and one processor -- Bells, Tenn.-based United Foods.
It is not only manufacturers who oppose the new marking rules. Paul Bernish, a spokesman for Kroger Co., Cincinnati, said Kroger is also against the proposal.
"There are already requirements for identifying the country of origin, and the new requirements will just add to and complicate existing rules and put more burdens on retailers, with no benefit to consumers," Bernish said.
"Our belief is that it is not a matter related to consumers' right to know, but that it's a protectionist measure. This [proposal] has an implication with produce grown outside the U.S. that it is less safe and sanitary.
" We think the people who are proposing [a new rule] are using it as a way to categorize produce as domestic versus foreign and [will] use it as a marketing approach," Bernish continued.
But La Sorte says the Alliance does not wish to cast aspersions on foreign produce and simply wants to create "a level playing field.
"Consumers should know where their produce is coming from, and many manufacturers are skirting the law."
Both Mexican and Canadian officials are also opposed to the front-panel marking proposal. They have expressed their concerns to Customs in a steady stream of letters over the last few years. Most recently, ambassadors of both countries have noted that the new requirements are inconsistent with Annex 311 of the North American Free Trade Agreement and that a new rule would introduce unnecessary trade barriers.
"Frozen exports of vegetables have gone from 469.2 million pounds to 933.5 million pounds, from 1990 to 1996," noted AFFI's Anderson. "If Customs goes ahead, Mexico and Canada said they will retaliate. That will be bad for American farmers. We are trying to lower tariff and trade barriers so we can export agricultural products."
Bernish noted, "Every time there's a label change, it costs money. It's not a neutral action to add a new label to a product, whether it's all new products or existing products.
"For example, when we were required to put nutritional labeling on the meat package, it cost us $4 million," he continued. Bernish said manufacturers would be sure to pass along the cost of reworking labels to retailers.
Pat Sylvester, vice president of IGA brands in Chicago, agreed a change would be costly.
"It will add more cost, because you'd be carrying more packaging inventory. If they can't jet ink it on the package, you would have to preprint it," he said.
Sylvester explained one common practice is to jet ink the country of origin after the fact on a preprinted package, which may not be allowable under new regulations. Those in favor of the new rule say front-panel labeling will create a uniform system of marking and more easily allow Customs to monitor violations.
The Alliance has recently called Customs' attention to two alleged violators of current marking rules: Dean Foods Vegetable Co. (makers of the Birds Eye brand), Green Bay, Wis., and Curtice Burns Foods (makers of McKenzie and Southern Farms brands), Rochester, N.Y.
Jeff Shaw, president at Dean Foods, told SN, "Other than acknowledging receipt of the complaint, the Customs Department has not contacted us. This would suggest to me that they [Customs] agree with our position that we are not in violation."
Meanwhile, Curtice Burns issued a press release in July acknowledging it had received a copy of the Alliance's complaint and was looking into the allegations.
"The Company states that it firmly believes it is in full compliance with all government regulations," the press release noted. It also stated there were errors in the allegations, but that the company was taking the charges seriously and fully investigating the matter.