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Industry eyes key issues in 2009

by Joan Murphy | January 12, 2009
WASHINGTON -- Don't expect federal enforcement of undocumented workers in the agriculture industry to come to a screeching halt with the new Obama administration, but other changes are likely, according to industry experts who identified key priorities for this year's Congress.

Issues ranging from to immigration reform, nutrition policy changes to new food-safety legislation will be top issues for the produce industry as a new Congress and a new administration take center stage later this month.

Immigration reform remains a critical issue for the agriculture industry, Craig Regelbrugge, vice president for Government Relations & Research for the American Nursery & Landscape Association, told The Produce News.

Even though unemployment is on the rise, there is no evidence that U.S. workers are lining up to take jobs in the agriculture industry, Mr. Regelbrugge said, adding that with all eyes on the sagging economy, Congress is not likely to begin discussing immigration reform until this summer at the earliest.

Other employment issues may play out in Congress and the courts in 2009. It's na?ve to think that federal enforcement of undocumented workers at the workplace will stop when President-elect Obama takes office, but there could be a shift in priorities over time, Mr. Regelbrugge said.

Also, it's far from clear what will happen to the Social Security no-match rule, which may be decided by the courts in April. The courts may also become a player over the Bush administration's revamped H-2A final rule, which will soon go into effect.

"There are improvements, but some of the changes are negative," he said. "The regulations don't give us the certainty legislation would provide."

Critics of the H-2A guest worker changes may gain a key ally in Mr. Obama's nominee to head the Department of Labor, U.S. Rep. Hilda Solis (D-CA), who blasted the rule on Dec. 12 for slashing wages and reducing worker rights. Ms. Solis also is a long-time supporter of AgJobs, the guest worker reform bill backed by workers and employers.

Nutrition programs offer opportunities to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables, and these will be top priorities this year, Robert Guenther, senior vice president for policy at the United Fresh Produce Association, based in Washington, told The Produce News. The 2009 reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act offers a chance to shape key policies that will allow greater access to fruits and vegetables in school programs.

Mr. Guenther said that United Fresh will be working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to oversee implementation of the expanded school snack program, defend spending under the farm bill, and keep an eye on implementation of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for the Women, Infants & Children voucher program. The industry also is working with USDA to reform outdated procurement guidelines that do not often favor perishable Section 32 purchases.

The preoccupation with the economic recession and other pressing domestic issues means that food safety is not likely to be ranked as a "first-six-month" issue, said Mr. Guenther. But it will resurface, and when it does, the produce industry will need to ensure that any new laws are science-based, commodity-specific and consistent across the board, he said.

After last year's Salmonella outbreak, there were renewed calls for regulation, said Lisa Lochridge, public affairs director for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, based in Maitland, FL. "The topic has cooled down a little bit, but it's still important," she said.

Along with immigration reform, nutrition policy changes and food safety, the Produce Marketing Association will be closely watching the highway reauthorization bill, said Lee Mannering, PMA's government relations and public affairs manager.

Normally truck drivers are limited to driving 11 hours per day, but during planting and harvest times, there is an agricultural hours-of-service exemption if the truck driver is operating within a 100-mile radius of his or her farm or distribution point, Mr. Mannering said. In the highway reauthorization bill, transportation groups are recommending that this be expanded to 150 air miles.

PMA plans to educate members on the new country-of-origin labeling changes early this year. When the final rule is released, PMA plans to reconvene its COOL Best Practices Task Force to see if the best practices need amending in light of the new regulation, said Mr. Mannering.

"While not expected to gain much attention legislatively or via regulation, sustainability is a topic PMA expects to gain more momentum in the produce industry," Mr. Mannering added.

PMA is a founding member of the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, a multi-stakeholder initiative intended to develop a system for measuring sustainable performance throughout the specialty crop supply chain. Produce businesses also will be keeping an eye on efforts to pass a union- backed card check bill, which may make it easier for workers to join unions and could have a better chance of passing under a Democrat-controlled Congress and White House.

"It's becoming a very critical issue," said Mr. Guenther of United Fresh. As a candidate, President-elect Obama pledged to sign the Employee Free Choice Act if he won in November.