ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- The produce industry has made an 11th-hour request to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for an extension of the May 8 deadline for complying with part of the new wax labeling regulation.
The part in question concerns the mandate to label plastic and mesh bags and trays used for consumer packs of fresh produce that has been treated with wax or resin.
The petition, filed April 7, seeks a one-year extension on this point. It was filed jointly by the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association here and the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del. The extension is being sought because packers and shippers who sell treated produce in consumer packs say the phase-in period for the new regulation has been too short. They say they haven't had enough time to use up packaging supplies that would not be in compliance under the new regulation.
"There are companies out there that have a three- to four-year supply of bags and couldn't exhaust them during the phase-in period," said John McClung, United's vice president for issues management.
The wax labeling regulation was passed in January 1993, but the technical amendments outlining how the law should be implemented were not published until last August -- nine months before the deadline. Even then, the information failed to emphasize the need for labeling of consumer packs, the trade groups contend.
In fact, the trade groups said, the regulation nowhere contains specific directives about labeling packaged produce that has been coated with wax or resins. The regulation does say, however, that wax coatings and resins are to be considered food additives. This point makes products treated with wax or resins that are placed in packages subject to ingredient-labeling laws.
The only exceptions from this requirement are clear bags or packages listing no other information, such as a brand, distributor or net weight.
"We are hopeful FDA officials will understand that unless the effective date is extended, millions of dollars worth of packaging inventory will be lost with no significant benefit to consumers," McCluskey said.
He added that the industry is ready to move ahead on all other elements of the regulation, which says all retailers selling coated produce must post signs explaining the use of waxes and identifying items that are coated.
Apples and citrus are the most common wax-treated produce items that are sold in consumer packs. "We're in the process of looking at it now," said Brad Stone, an FDA spokesman. He added that it generally takes about 90 days to respond to a petition.
What happens if retailers sell packaged produce that isn't labeled after the deadline? "If a retailer displays packaged product that is not in compliance, a state inspector could ask that the product be removed until it is in compliance," said McClung. The law, according to McClung, says the supplier is responsible for having the produce packages properly labeled. While coatings do not pose health concerns, they do raise dietary issues for some consumers, according to FDA. For example, while most waxes and resins are of plant origin, a few are derived from animal products, which is of particular concern to consumers who maintain vegetarian or kosher diets.
The primary reasons wax or resins are applied to produce are to help retain the product's moisture during shipping and marketing and to inhibit mold growth.