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    Will country of origin labeling speed traceback?

    Hello, this is Julia Stewart and welcome back to PMA’s new audio series, “Ask Dr. Bob Whitaker.” Today I am talking with Kathy Means, PMA’s vice president of government relations and public affairs. She and Bob Whitaker form the dynamic duo that heads PMA’s food safety team.

    Kathy, an Associated Press reporter recently asked you if the tomato traceback process would be going faster if mandatory country of origin labeling was already in place. Would you please share with our audience how you responded to that question?

    Kathy Means:

    While at first glance one might think that logic seems to make sense, in fact country of origin labeling would not speed the traceback – which makes sense when you think about your own produce consumption.

    Bob has talked a bit about how difficult epidemiological investigations can be a previous briefing. Let’s imagine you ate something that made you sick. It may take up to three days for you to get sick. Then you’re sick for a few days before you see the doctor, and then the tests they do take another week or so.

    So by the time the public health folks get to you, they are asking you what you ate over the course of three days two weeks ago — try it now, can you do it? Think about everything you ate June 2nd, 3rd and 4th – what you ate, where you ate it, et cetera. Write it all down. Now, can you also remember the sticker on every fresh produce item you bought – and remember, country of origin labeling only applies to the produce you bought at retail, not at foodservice. And also remember, you may have bought the produce earlier than June 2nd, 3rd and 4th. It’s tough, isn’t it?

    The goal of country of origin labeling is to inform consumers at point of sale – it’s not a food safety tracking system. What’s key in a traceback is the information the buyer has about where it sourced its products. As a consumer, you may remember that you bought your produce at Store A and/or Store B. And you may remember that you ate out at Restaurant X, a graduation party and a community pot luck. Then it’s up to the retailers and foodservice operators to work with public health officials to trace back all of those points of service. It’s not up to you as a consumer.

    What’s important for traceback is that everyone in the industry must know and be able to document where they got the product from and whom they sent it to – one up, one back – as required by the federal bioterrorism law. It’s also important that this process be quick and efficient – that’s why PMA is so strongly behind the ongoing industry-wide traceability initiative we are leading with United Fresh Produce Association and the Canadian PMA.

    But even when all of that is in place, traceability may hit a snag when products are commingled and repacked, as they often are in the case of tomatoes and other items. This is one example of a practice we’ll all have to take another look at in the future.

    So if country of origin labeling is not a food safety system, what is it? It is a way to let consumers know where their produce was grown – and for a lot of producers, it’s a marketing opportunity they can use proudly. Right now the top 20 fruits and top 20 vegetables make up more than 90 percent of the fresh produce sold to consumers at retail in the United States. And more than 60 percent of them have some sort of origin information – might be a country or a U.S. state or region. So we’re already well on our way to providing consumers with the information that the law will require us to do when country of origin labeling becomes mandatory starting this fall.

    Julia:

    Thank you, Kathy. To help our members get ready for the September 30 start date for mandatory country of origin labeling, PMA and Western Growers will be hosting a free Webinar June 24. The Webinar will introduce best practices developed by a task force made up of industry leaders from across the supply chain. For more information about the Webinar, or to access the best practices, please go to our Web site www.pma.com, and then to our country of origin labeling issues page. Remember, the June 24 Webinar is free, but you do have to register, so please register today.

    Thanks for listening. Please join us again next time!

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