BENTONVILLE, Ark. -- Food division heads at Wal-Mart Stores are developing a traceability protocol in preparation for a larger effort to create a voluntary food origin labeling program that officials hope could take the place of the government's country-of-origin labeling mandate.
The world's largest retailer has been talking to national suppliers, major food trade associations, food-service operators and even other retailers to develop a program with more appeal than the unpopular COOL legislation. Last month, Congress approved an omnibus appropriations bill that contained a two-year delay for introducing origin labels on meat, produce and peanuts.
"We'd be hopeful a voluntary program that industry works on together would replace the current law," said Bruce Peterson, senior vice president of perishables and general merchandise manager for Wal-Mart. "We'd be hopeful industry could replace a flawed law with a voluntary program. This isn't just a Wal-Mart thing. We'll use our influence to work toward an industry solution."
Four company vice presidents -- in charge of meat, deli and seafood; produce and floral; dairy and frozen foods; and bakery -- are working on establishing traceability protocols for their particular areas of responsibility, he said. Scheduled to be in place by the end of this year, the protocols will be set up for application at all Wal-Mart formats that sell food, including Sam's Club. By summer 2005, the company wants to roll out a produce-labeling program. Ultimately, Wal-Mart plans to have a labeling system in place for other foods, including meat, Peterson said.
"This is not just a produce issue," he said. "We think voluntary labeling is applicable in all commodity areas."
While it's too early to say how a tracking system would work, radio frequency identification technology could be part of the solution, Peterson said. He acknowledged the project poses a number of challenges to all affected industries, and the issues will be different for the various commodities.
For instance, produce officials will grapple with the issue of how to label fruits and vegetables normally sold in bulk, including the tiniest of items, such as jalapeno peppers, he said.
"This is why it's important for producers and retailers to work together and not be divisive," he said. "That's what happened with COOL. It became divisive."
From a food safety standpoint, a traceability program is critical, said Peterson, pointing to the recent case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in a Washington state cow, and the hepatitis A outbreaks linked to green onions as examples of weaknesses in existing traceback systems.
"One fundamental problem with the COOL legislation was that it started at the problem backwards," he said. "You can't have efficient labeling without a traceback program so you can track back where your products come from. Wal-Mart is going to be very aggressive in working with suppliers, grower-shippers, trade associations and federal officials in trying to establish traceability protocols in the different perishable industries."
Congress's decision to delay implementation of the country-of-origin legislation came as a big relief to the industry. The proposed law rankled many who believed the steep estimated implementation cost of $4 billion and recordkeeping requirements would impose an unfair burden on the food industry.
However, opposition to the law shouldn't be viewed as industry resistance to the larger concept of origin labeling, Peterson said.
"So often, the growers particularly or cattle producers misinterpreted the retail position as we don't like COOL," he said. "We don't like that law. A voluntary COOL program could be a workable situation."
Sept. 30 will be an important date for the seafood category, which was not part of the delay. That's when mandatory labels identifying the country in which the seafood products were harvested, and whether they are farm-raised or wild, are scheduled to go into effect.