Fresh Produce:

Potential Consequences of Country-of-Origin Labeling

RCED-99-112: Published: Apr 21, 1999. Publicly Released: Apr 21, 1999.

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Pursuant to a legislative requirement, GAO provided information on the: (1) potential costs associated with the compliance and enforcement of a mandatory country-of-origin labeling requirement at the retail level for fresh produce; (2) potential trade issues associated with such a requirement; (3) potential impact of such a requirement on the ability of the federal government and the public to respond to outbreaks of illness caused by contaminated fresh produce; and (4) consumers' views of country-of-origin labeling.

GAO noted that: (1) the magnitude of compliance and enforcement costs for a country-of-origin labeling requirement at the retail level would depend on several factors, including the extent to which labeling practices would have to be changed; (2) according to an association representing grocery retailers, changing store signs to ensure that produce is properly labeled would cost about 2 staff hours per store per week; (3) however, it is unclear who would bear the burden of any such additional labeling costs--retailers could absorb some or all of the costs or pass them to consumers or to their suppliers; (4) regarding enforcement, the Food and Drug Administration, in commenting on a recently proposed bill, estimated that federal monitoring would cost about $56 million annually and said that enforcement would be difficult; (5) inspectors would need documentary evidence to determine the country-of-origin of the many produce items on display, and this documentation is often not available at each retail store; (6) enforcement is carried out in only one of the three states with labeling laws; (7) Florida inspectors told GAO that they sometimes have no reliable means to verify the accuracy of labels; (8) according to Department of Agriculture officials and industry representatives, mandatory labeling at the retail level could be viewed by other countries as a trade barrier; (9) officials also noted that countries concerned with a labeling law could take actions that could adversely affect U.S. exports; (10) about half of the countries that account for most of the U.S. trade in produce require country-of-origin labeling for fresh produce at the retail level; (11) when outbreaks of foodborne illness occur, country-of-origin labeling for fresh produce would be of limited benefit to food safety agencies in tracing the source of contamination and to the public in responding to a warning of an outbreak; (12) it can take weeks or months for food safety agencies to identify an outbreak, determine the type of food involved, identify the source of the food contamination, and issue a warning; (13) retail labeling would help consumers only if they remembered the country of origin or still had the produce, or if the produce were still in the store; and (14) according to nationwide surveys sponsored by the fresh produce industry, between 74 and 83 percent of consumers favor mandatory country-of-origin labeling for fresh produce, although they rated information on freshness, nutrition, and handling and storage as more important.

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