FARMERS hope labels help shoppers, protect marketshare

Saturday, May 26th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BIXBY, Okla. (AP) _ Price signs identify sources of a produce potpourri wafting through Don Carmichael's open-air store: plump Texas melons, sweet California strawberries and ripe, red Florida tomatoes.

He grew the sweet onions and squash himself, and also stocks produce from South America and Mexico to satisfy customers who want fresh, tasty fruits and vegetables year round.

His price signs aside, Carmichael questions a campaign by farmers to require labels showing the countries of origin on an assortment of fresh foods. A 1930 federal law mandated labels on clothing and other items, but fresh foods were exempt, partly because much of it was locally grown then.

``On the produce, if everybody's getting a good enough price nobody says anything,'' Carmichael said.

But now U.S. growers are talking plenty. A booming global market has trimmed market share for some U.S. produce as competition heats up from south of the border.

Grocers fret over a potential compliance nightmare if mandatory labeling requires them to be the labelers.

But produce growers believe labels could influence more U.S. consumers to buy American and reconsider purchases of foreign produce that might be sprayed with chemicals banned in the United States.

The labels also would distinguish U.S. meats from countries where farmers are battling hoof-and-mouth and mad cow diseases.

``We're not trying to cast doubt on growers in other countries as much as we're trying to give consumers a better-informed choice when they buy their food,'' said Ray Gilmer, a spokesman for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.

Produce imports have shot up, aided by the North American Free Trade Agreement enacted in 1994. Fresh fruit imports rose from about 24 percent to about 33 percent through the 1980s and mid-90s, according to federal estimates, and the volume was expected to grow by an additional 33 percent through the end of next year.

Florida's fruit and vegetable growers, who account for roughly 90 percent of U.S.-grown produce in winter, have watched their market share erode, especially since NAFTA.

Their portion of the winter tomato market shrunk by as much as 40 percent, Gilmer said.

A 20-year-old state law requires Florida grocers to label fruits and vegetables, but the association, the National Farmers Union and others support mandatory labeling nationwide.

Three bills are pending in Congress, including one calling for labeling to be done at the supermarket. Compliance might require only a sign showing the origin of produce or meats, Gilmer said.

Since produce is sold in bulk, it would not be economical for producers to label each piece, he said.

Texas has a labeling law limited to fruit, Gilmer said. Oklahoma's legislature balked at requiring labels this session, but called for a study.

``It is ridiculous today when you can go to a department store and it is clearly identified where your clothes are made, but when you go to buy food you put in your body, it is not identified,'' said Ray Wulf, president of the Oklahoma Farmers Union.

Grocers opposed the Oklahoma proposal, which would have forced them to do the labeling. They said it would be costly, time consuming and potentially impossible to label all items.

``A lot of times, these things will come in wholesale and the packagers have not labeled where they come from,'' said Jim Hopper, president of the Oklahoma Grocers Association, which represents independent supermarket owners.

On average, a supermarket has about 370 items _ fruit, vegetables, frozen and fresh meats _ that would require the tags, he said.

Grocers already rely on federal inspectors at meat and produce plants and border checkpoints to ensure the safety of foods, regardless of origin, Hopper said.

Growers in California and Arizona, where more than half the country's fresh produce is grown, want labels.

``For us, it just really gets down to a consumer's right to know and that's what we have heard from consumers, that they are interested in knowing where the food comes from,'' said Heather Flower, a spokeswoman for the Western Growers Association in Irvine, Calif.

Alan Way, who grows strawberries, watermelons and vegetables at Jamberry Farms near Madill in southern Oklahoma, also supports labeling so consumers can choose his products over his foreign competitors'.

``The North American Free Trade Agreement didn't mean fair trade,'' he said. ``We're at a distinct disadvantage to our competitors in Mexico. They can produce it cheaper, but they can't necessarily produce it better.''

Way said his labor costs are higher and U.S. regulations on labor and chemical sprays are more stringent.

But as a grocer and produce grower who farms 400 acres south of Tulsa, Carmichael said he doesn't see the need.

``We're actually so small that labeling would be a big problem to us,'' he said.