WASHINGTON -- Time is running out. On May 8 a new regulation goes into effect that mandates the labeling of fresh produce coated with wax or resin and spells out labeling requirements.
For retailers, this means signs need to be posted in produce departments listing the items they carry that are treated with wax or resin. The regulation says that one of two headings must be printed on the signs, depending on the type of coating used: "Coated with food-grade, animal-based wax to maintain freshness," or "Coated with food-grade, vegetable-, petroleum-, beeswax-, and/or shellac-based wax or resin to maintain freshness."
Shippers and packers also are affected. Shipping containers of bulk, coated produce must be printed with the information, while packaged products must carry the information directly on the label or package.
The Food and Drug Administration maintains that regulations have long been in effect mandating such labeling, but the agency has been lax in enforcing them. FDA passed the new regulation in January 1993 to codify the existing policy and to send a clear message that it plans to step up its enforcement efforts.
"Consumers are more concerned about their food than ever before," said Emil Corwin, an FDA spokesman. "Waxes are acceptable and they do provide many advantages and practical functions, but they are food additives, and as such, must meet FDA's stringent standards for ingredient labeling. We need to provide as much information as possible to consumers regarding the ingredients in their food."
State and federal FDA inspectors will visit supermarkets to ensure they are in compliance with the regulation, Corwin said.
The primary reasons wax or resin are applied to produce are to help retain the product's moisture
during shipping and marketing and to inhibit mold growth.
While coatings do not pose health concerns, according to FDA, they do raise dietary issues for some consumers. For example, while most waxes and resins are of plant origin, some are derived from animal products, which is of particular concern to consumers who maintain vegetarian or Kosher diets. "If any consumers are looking for this information, then we need to comply," said Frank Gillespie, corporate director of produce at Roundy's, Peewaukee, Wis. Roundy's, a full-service wholesaler, will provide the necessary signage to the 153 stores it serves in time to meet the compliance deadline.
"We're putting up signs in all of our stores to meet the signage requirements," said Jim Richter, director of produce for Marsh Supermarkets, Indianapolis. "They will be prominantly displayed before the May 8 deadline."
Although he doesn't think many of his customers are concerned about wax or resins, Richter believes the signs serve a good purpose.
"I believe the signs will raise our customers' awareness," he said. "At this time, I don't think it is an issue for the majority of our customers, but for those that it is, it will help them make informed choices."
Some of the commodities that are commonly waxed include: apples, avocados, bell peppers, cantaloupes and other melons, cucumbers, eggplants, grapefruits, lemons, limes, oranges, parsnips, passion fruit, peaches, pineapples, pumpkins, rutabagas, squash, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and turnips.