HOLDING OUT HOPE

It's a long shot, but food industry leaders continue to hold out hope that a voluntary country-of-origin labeling program could replace the mandatory one.As the Sept. 30 implementation date for the mandatory labeling program draws closer, a bill that would effectively replace it with a voluntary one is winding its way through Congress. Included in the Food Promotion Act of 2004 is a provision that

It's a long shot, but food industry leaders continue to hold out hope that a voluntary country-of-origin labeling program could replace the mandatory one.

As the Sept. 30 implementation date for the mandatory labeling program draws closer, a bill that would effectively replace it with a voluntary one is winding its way through Congress. Included in the Food Promotion Act of 2004 is a provision that would give retailers and their suppliers a chance to hammer out a voluntary program for not only seafood, but for meat and fresh produce as well. Mandatory labeling for meat and produce won't take effect until 2006.

"We spent some time in July negotiating with elements of the seafood industry, including the Alaskan seafood producers [who support a mandatory program] about a voluntary program that may actually give them more than the mandatory program in our view by allowing an Alaskan designation," said John Motley, senior vice president of government and public affairs with Food Marketing Institute, Washington. "Under the voluntary program, we'd set up a mechanism under which we'd meet with the seafood industry and determine, together, a better way of labeling fish and seafood."

Having cleared the House Agriculture Committee, the bill is awaiting consideration by the full House, said Mike Flanagan, an attorney in Milwaukee, with Foley & Lardner, a law firm that's been monitoring the origin labeling issue for some of its food industry clients. "Whether this bill or anything else can change the implementation date for mandatory labeling, it's hard to say," he said.

Motley said the voluntary initiative is designed to be less onerous than the mandatory regulations. Recordkeeping would not be required, and retailers would not face fines for noncompliance. More importantly, the voluntary program would give retailers and their suppliers ample time to design a more workable program.

"We've had 48 major supermarket companies agree to do their best to implement a voluntary program," Motley said. "The goal would be to focus on labeling domestic product, and paying less attention to specifying seafood of foreign origin. The only problem with the voluntary plan at this point is that the clock is ticking on the mandatory plan."