NEWARK, Del. — The Produce Marketing Association and the Western Growers Association hosted a free webinar last week, explaining to produce growers, distributors and retailers what they would need to do to become compliant with country of origin labeling requirements, set to go into effect on Sept. 30. Earlier this month, the two groups jointly released a white paper draft, suggesting best management practices for COOL, as part of an effort to minimize unnecessary costs and help make compliance consistent throughout the industry.
“Over the past few months, in anticipation of the Sept. 30 deadline, we became quite aware through our constituents, and in discussing with other trade associations throughout the country, that many suppliers and retailers were dialoguing about [COOL implementation],” explained Matthew McInerney, executive vice president of WGA, during the webinar.
Many suppliers were hearing demands for immediate compliance and implementation, McInerney added. But since the 2007 Farm Bill did not pass until recently, it was unclear whether the produce industry would be able to take advantage of the new, streamlined COOL regulations in the current Farm Bill, or a more difficult version of the rules from the 2002 Farm Bill.
The new regulations, which will be officially released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in July, include a 30-day grace period allowing retailers and suppliers to come into compliance if any COOL violations are discovered, as well as a reduced fine structure. State and regional labeling programs, such as “California Grown” and “Pride of New York,” are automatically compliant with COOL. And no new record-keeping will be required for retailers and suppliers.
To simplify compliance, the goal is to label products as close as possible to the first shipping point, said Tom Deardorff, president of Deardorff Family Farms and member of the PMA-WGA COOL task force. Growers and distributors should use existing labeling vehicles for COOL information — including PLU stickers, bands, twist ties, clamshells, bags and wraps.
Suppliers should also be putting COOL information on their master shipping cartons — already a common practice in the industry. And COOL information should be provided on bills of lading, which generally pass through the entire supply chain, unlike invoices. Deardorff also suggested that suppliers should work with supermarkets on “new and unique vehicles” for COOL.
“Obviously this is a new paradigm from a regulatory standpoint, but it also could be a new paradigm from a merchandising standpoint,” he said.
For retailers, the primary responsibility will be to provide signage for produce displayed in bulk, and other produce items that cannot bear a label, explained Mike O'Brien, task force member and vice president of produce and floral, Schnuck Markets.
As suppliers become compliant, retailers should be able to rely on the bill of lading for back-office record-keeping. And at the store level, “on bulk, non-labeled items, we'll rely on master cartons to document COOL. We'll make the decision on what to sign our product with, based on what's on the container. So there's no need to keep empty boxes.”
Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for PMA, said the task force will continue to update these draft recommendations as new information becomes available from the USDA. COOL laws will be mandatory beginning Sept. 30; however, Means noted that there will likely be an interim period during which penalties are not enforced, to allow the USDA to train its staff and to allow the produce industry to implement the rules.