ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The frozen food industry is suing the U.S. Customs Service to stop it from implementing a ruling that sets new requirements for country-of-origin labels for packaged frozen foods using imported produce.
"This morning, AFFI [American Frozen Food Institute] is filing a lawsuit with the U.S. Court of International Trade to seek an order that would prohibit the U.S. Customs Service from implementing or enforcing special country-of-origin marking rules for packaging containing imported frozen produce," AFFI Chairman Steven McCaffray said Feb. 14 at the opening of the group's Western Frozen Food Conference here.
The suit, co-filed by AFFI with Green Giant, Minneapolis, and J.R. Simplot Co., Boise, Idaho, is in response to a final interpretive ruling issued by Customs on Dec. 29 that called for a May 8, 1994 implementation. The industry claims the ruling was rammed through the system without regard to proper procedure.
"Customs failed to publish the proposed rules for the country-of-origin requirements, disallowing interested parties any opportunity to comment on how their lives would be affected," McCaffray said.
Tim Stanseu, AFFI's general counsel from the firm of Hogan & Hartson, Washington, said, "The problem with what Customs and the Treasury Department did does not have to do with ruling that front-panel marking is required. The problem was the way they did it.
"The September notice Customs published never set forth a proposed rule. It simply requested comment on whether or not marking should be on the front panel, as the petitioners had alleged. "There were vague references to type size and conspicuousness, but they are nowhere near legally sufficient to constitute a proposed rule."
The plaintiffs also question the effective date, saying it doesn't allow enough time for companies to meet the new requirements. A third item mentioned in the suit is Customs' failure to demonstrate a rational reason that packages be marked in lettering and type of certain sizes.
AFFI officials seemed confident they will win their case. "I think we have very good, very sound arguments," Stanseu said, adding retailers will be affected because their suppliers will be affected, and recommending they keep abreast of the issue. "The people who need to be most concerned are importers," he pointed out.
If the plaintiffs win, the process would begin again and the industry would have opportunity to comment.
Bill Daniels, president of J.R. Simplot's food group, said the industry is not necessarily against listing countries of origin on products, but objects to some of the requirements in the ruling.
Terry Thompson, a spokesman for Green Giant, agreed. "We think we have cooperated well with Customs in the past. The latest ruling, however, requires type that nearly obliterates the name of the products. We think it looks punitive."