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IFDA Seeks 'Safe Harbor' Provision for Distributors under COOL

NEW YORK - In a letter to the Agricultural Marketing Service of the Department of Agriculture in Washington, the foodservice distributors' trade organization asked it to extend "safe harbor" provisions of the Country of Origin Labeling program to the distribution industry.

Foodservice distributors should be covered for violations that occur at the retailer level but are unknown to the supplier, David French, senior vice-president, government relations of the International Foodservice Distributors Association, Falls Church, VA, pointed out in his Feb. 27 letter to the AMS.

French noted that foodservice distributors who sell a small portion of their products to retailers cannot be expected to know if their customers redirect some of the covered products to a sales area that requires country of origin labeling.

"There is no way for a foodservice distributor to police the actions its customers and it would be unreasonable for the AMS to expect them to do so. Any distributor that takes reasonable precautions to ensure it is selling products for foodservice use should not be subject to enforcement action based on conduct it cannot control. The agency should expand the proposed safe harbor provision so that transactions that are legitimately exempt or excluded from the labeling requirements at the time of the sale are not subject to regulatory enforcement action," French wrote.

The association also urged the AMS to explain the reasonable knowledge requirements of the regulations and "recognize that it is always reasonable for certain entities, such as foodservice distributors, to believe that the products they sell are for an exempt and excluded use." It indicated that foodservice distributors sell a small fraction of their items to retailers and an even smaller portion to retailers as defined by the Perishable Commodities Act (PACA) of 1930.

"Given the small part of the foodservice distributors' business that goes to retail and impossibility of determining whether or not these entities might be PACA retailers, AMS should, as a rule, consider it reasonable for foodservice distributors to believe that the products they sell are exempt or excluded from the regulation," French wrote.

Country of original labeling regulations for seafood sold at retail go into effect Sept. 30 while regulations for all other covered products, such as beef, lamb, pork, perishable agricultural commodities and peanuts, go into effect Sept. 20, 2006. French stated that in view of the two-year lag period, the AMS should hold another round of rulemaking prior to the second deadline. "Perhaps most importantly, the experience gleaned from seafood labeling will provide the agency and food industry with a much better understanding of how to implement the labeling requirements in an effective and efficient manner," he said.

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