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Industry Groups to Create Voluntary Country of Origin Program

WASHINGTON - Associations for the nation's leading produce, beef, pork and seafood producers, along with food retailers and wholesalers, are joining forces to craft a cost-effective, voluntary program that would provide consumers country of origin information. They hope to come up with a workable replacement to the program mandated in the 2002 farm bill.

The groups involved include United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association (UFFVA), National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), National Fisheries Institute (NFI), Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and National Grocers Association (N.G.A.).

The groups said in a joint press release issued today that they plan to hold a summit in the near future with other concerned segments of the food industry to develop a consensus voluntary labeling program.

The associations said they aim to finalize a labeling program by this spring, involving as many segments of the food industry as possible. They will then work with Congress to codify the program into legislation that replaces the mandatory labeling law.

"There is widespread agreement that the mandatory program is too costly and unworkable in the real world," said UFFVA president Tom Stenzel. "We all agree that the goal is to give consumers useful information about where their food comes from. What is needed is an industry-driven framework for providing country of origin information that is market-driven and does not increase the cost of food by imposing needless bureaucratic requirements. A solution must be reached now before it adds further costs to produce grower-shippers and harms consumers through disrupting the distribution and marketing of healthy fresh fruits and vegetables."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated that in the first year alone, the mandatory law will cost up to $3.9 billion.

"We do not need to create a bureaucratic nightmare that will drive small retailers and producers out of business," said FMI president and c.e.o. Tim Hammonds. "Food retailers have long promoted U.S. brands and their region, state or farm of origin. This initiative can build on these efforts and accomplish the same goal as the mandatory labeling law without the baggage of excessive compliance costs."

NCBA President and Idaho Cattle Producer Eric Davis echoed these beliefs, emphasizing that, "We need a program that allows consumers to support American producers. At the same time, we must not confuse this promotional program with efforts to ensure that our beef supply is safe.

"The mandatory labeling law was never designed to promote food safety," said Davis. "We have other laws for that purpose, and we are now working with the government to strengthen those measures and make sure that the American consumer can continue to buy the safest beef in the world."

NPPC president Jon Caspers, a pork producer from Swaledale, Iowa, added that pork producers support a workable, voluntary country of origin labeling program that would include a national animal identification system. "This would protect the health of the U.S. livestock herd and ensure greater confidence in our food supply," Caspers said. "Due to current low hog prices, it's critical to increase the demand for pork. A voluntary program will be available to all segments, including restaurants and food service, and will reward those who choose to participate."
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