- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Joseph Rodriguez wants to walk into any U.S. supermarket and see shrimp that is labeled “Product of the United States.”

“I know where my underwear is made, but I don’t have a right to know where food is from,” said Mr. Rodriguez, a boat builder and shrimp fisherman from Bayou La Batre, Ala.

Starting today, he should have that right — at least for many seafood products.

President Bush in 2002 signed a farm bill that mandates country-of-origin labeling for beef, lamb, pork, fish, produce and peanuts. But the edict proved unpopular with many food producers and most retailers. So Congress pushed back the mandatory-labeling requirements until September 2006 and might scrap them for everything except wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish.

The rule also proved complicated, and the Agriculture Department (USDA) as of yesterday had not printed final regulations, leaving supermarkets, fishermen and processors uncertain about what products will be covered.

“We know the industry wants to see it. But we know we have to get this right. A lot of people need to look at a document from every possible angle,” said George Chartier, a spokesman for USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, the agency tasked with implementing the rules.

Mr. Chartier said he expected the rule to be published today, but would not elaborate on implementation and enforcement of potential penalties. The law calls for fines as high as $10,000 for retailers and suppliers that do not comply, although industry sources said they expect a grace period before full enforcement.

Many manufacturers and retailers are hoping that regulators also write rules that step back from some requirements in the original proposal, exempting many processed products, for example.

“We don’t have a problem with labeling. We have a problem with the law that was passed. It is unnecessarily complicated and expensive,” said John Motley, senior vice president for government affairs at the Food Marketing Institute, an association that represents Safeway, Food Lion and other retailers and distributors.

Some companies say the potentially unwieldy regulations would make them less competitive worldwide. Baltimore’s Phillips Foods, a crab, shrimp and fish processor and wholesaler, earlier this year said proposed regulations would have a “tremendous” impact on costs and administrative burdens.

Processors and supermarkets prefer voluntary labeling programs, such as existing marketing campaigns for U.S. beef.

But for Southern shrimpers, Alaska crabbers, California flounder and other fishermen who support country-of-origin labeling, the rule — and enforcement — cannot come soon enough.

For shrimpers, the labeling coincides with a marketing effort by Wild American Shrimp Inc. (WASI), a recently formed industry group that represents shrimp industries from eight states. The group is combating Asian and South American fish farms that supply more than 80 percent of the shrimp eaten in America.

The group is convinced that U.S. consumers would choose crustaceans fished out of warm Gulf and Atlantic waters, rather than foreign, frozen shrimp — if only they knew.

“The consumer will choose our domestic shrimp five days a week and twice on Sunday,” said Mr. Rodriguez, who also serves as WASI’s secretary and treasurer.

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