WASHINGTON RETAILERS BEGRUDGE LABEL LAW

SEATTLE (FNS) -- Retailers are calling a new state law, requiring them to distinguish state-grown fresh produce items, redundant of voluntary efforts. A spot check of operators indicated they were not even aware of the law, which takes effect in June."We do a lot already to promote Washington produce," said Rich Zdgil, produce specialist, Food Markets Northwest, operators of Queen Anne Thriftway,

SEATTLE (FNS) -- Retailers are calling a new state law, requiring them to distinguish state-grown fresh produce items, redundant of voluntary efforts. A spot check of operators indicated they were not even aware of the law, which takes effect in June.

"We do a lot already to promote Washington produce," said Rich Zdgil, produce specialist, Food Markets Northwest, operators of Queen Anne Thriftway, Procter Thriftway and Admiral Way Thriftway.

"We are close to our customers and we know what they are looking for. They are savvy and ask for information, he added. "In response, we like to be specific. That is our point of distinction."

Zdgil told SN that his chain's signage strategy actually helps sell produce. "We tell the story of the crop and of the farmer. It is not necessary for us to be told to do that."

"This is an insignificant bill for us," echoed Lon Hatling, produce specialist, Larry's Markets, Bellevue, Wash. "It really won't change how we do our business, or impact or influence how we do our business. We are way past where this [law] is coming from."

Larry's Markets and other Puget Sound-area independents currently use aggressive produce signage as a point of distinction between themselves and chain operators like Safeway, Albertson's, and Kroger's Fred Meyer and QFC operations.

Traditionally, Washington independents indicate growing regions as part of their day-to-day business strategy. Many, including Bainbridge Island-based Town & Country, invite growers into the stores to talk about their fields and crops and to demonstrate selection, care and preparation to customers. Most western Washington independents promote the local seasons through the Puget Sound Fresh campaign conducted annually by local growers.

"We are big supporters of local farmers," said Hatling. "We shift our program to feature local growers as the seasons permit."

Retailers, who opposed the bill saying it was too cumbersome, would have been penalized by the Department of Agriculture if they did not comply on a unit-by-unit basis. However, in signing the bill, Gov. Gary Locke vetoed the provision levying fines for repeat violations, effectively taking the teeth out of the legislation.

The first violation would result in a warning. The second, within the same calendar year, would prompt a $250 fine. The third violation would result in a $1,000 penalty. In his veto, Locke said the fines were too steep, writing, "I agree with the intent of the bill. However, the penalties ... are excessive."

Sen. Jim Honeyford, an agricultural district legislator who introduced the measure, is currently attempting to drum up support in the Legislature to sue Locke over the veto. "Without penalties, they don't have to do anything," he said of retailers in a prepared statement. "They can do what they please."

"I don't know how the state Department of Agriculture intends to enforce the law, particularly now that there are no penalties involved," said Amy Brackenbury, vice president, governmental affairs, Washington Food Industry, an Olympia-based food retail organization. "Further, I don't know if any official action will be taken by the state to notify retailers of this new law. We will do so through our newsletter, which is being mailed to members."

Zdgil, the retailer, said lawmakers should give supermarkets the benefit of the doubt regarding produce labeling, and devote their time to other matters.

"It's like the state is telling us how to display our merchandise," he said. "The next step might be telling us where to put signs and how large the letters must be or what colors we have to use."