WASHINGTON -- A country-of-origin labeling requirement for produce at the retail level could change the way retailers and others involved in the production and distribution of produce do business, thereby affecting their costs and consumer choice, the General Accounting Office said in its long-awaited report on the controversial subject.
Such a law would also be difficult and costly to enforce and could have adverse trade implications, according to the report, Fresh Produce: Potential Consequences of Country-of-Origin Labeling.
"Proponents of country-of-origin labeling want to send a negative message that imported fruits and vegetables are somehow inferior. Whenever you send a negative message, it damages the entire category, whether domestic or imported," said Tim Hammonds, president and chief executive officer of the Food Marketing Institute, chair of the Food Industry Trade Coalition, which opposes the legislation.
The study, commissioned last year by House and Senate lawmakers who were at odds over federal produce labeling legislation, concluded that the cost of compliance would vary depending on the specific requirements of the law and the extent to which current practices would need to be changed.
Retailers said a labeling law would be "unduly burdensome" for several reasons. They feared a labeling law would require retailers to display the same produce item from different countries separately, if each individual item is not marked. This practice could result in partially-filled bins, which negatively impact consumers, who are less likely to purchase produce from such bins, the associations concurred.
Retail associations also noted that retailers do not have sufficient display space to separate produce and still stock all the varieties consumers want. Also, the country-of-origin retailers' shipments may vary each week, so retailers would incur costs to change store signs and labels to reflect different shipment origins.
GAO concluded that "it is unclear who would bear the burden of compliance." Initially, retailers would bear the costs.
The Food and Drug Administration estimated that federal monitoring of a country-of-origin labeling requirement would be difficult and cost about $56 million a year. Federal inspectors could ensure that retailers have signs or labels in place and could review available documentation, but might not be able to determine that produce in a particular bin is from the country designated on the sign or label, the report said.
Organizations supporting the labeling initiative argued that the GAO missed the point of the congressional mandate and focused too much on the burden of cost, rather than the impact on consumers.
While the study acknowledged that consumers favor country-of-origin labeling for produce, it noted that shoppers rated information on freshness, nutrition and handling and storage as more important. Additionally, the GAO concluded that country-of-origin labeling would be of limited benefit to food-safety agencies in tracing the source of produce implicated in food-borne illnesses.