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WASHINGTON, D.C. – Without so much as a day to spare, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released interim final rule for implementation of mandatory seafood country of origin that gets underway today and will fully take effect six months from now.
According to a bulletin issued late yesterday by the McLean, Va.-based National Fisheries Institute, the published Interim Final Rule (IFR) contains a number of dramatic improvements, including product exemptions, delayed enforcement and simplified record-keeping.
The USDA said it will delay active enforcement of the law only until April 4, 2005. In addition, the IFR includes a grandfather clause that states any frozen fish and shellfish caught or harvested until December 6, 2004 will be exempt from the labeling requirements. The first six months of enforcement will be focused on education and outreach, accroding to the rule.
While the USDA will enter into partnerships with states to administer the law, only the USDA will be able to initiate enforcement actions. Any person may file a complaint with the USDA regarding mislabeled product and USDA may initiate an investigation if reasonable grounds exist for doing so.
Tim Hammonds, president and c.e.o. of the Food Marketing Institute, said that while FMI is "grateful" that the USDA took a number of the industry's suggestions and simplified the final rule in significant respects, "the rule still runs over 200 pages as issued, emphasizing the flaws in the underlying law -- excessive paperwork and other bureaucratic measures that do not benefit consumers and only inflate the cost of healthy, popular seafood products."
Hammonds continued: "We appreciate USDA delaying the effective date for this program for six months. But we have not addressed the lack of need for a mandatory country-of-origin labeling program of any kind. In fact, retailers and wholesalers are prepared to institute a voluntary labeling and marketing program that would benefit consumers and producers at a fraction of the cost. We still remain hopeful that Congress will enact legislation to replace this law with a voluntary program that would inform consumers but not place domestic suppliers at a cost disadvantage to their foreign competitors."