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USDA may raid specialty crop grants to pay for COOL enforcement

by Joan Murphy | January 13, 2009
WASHINGTON -- Short on funds to pay for implementing the new country- of-origin labeling program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to reach over and grab $3 million from the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program to cover the shortfall.

But specialty crop producers are trying to put the brakes on the deal by alerting members of Congress.

USDA is operating under a Continuing Resolution, a short-stop funding measure, and with money tight, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer had to choose among eliminating a program, not implementing COOL or using a "small portion" of specialty crop money, according to Agricultural Marketing Service spokesman Billy Cox.

USDA notified Congress that it planned to shift $3.18 million of the $49 million grant program to enforce COOL. The farm bill boosted the block grants, which are doled out to states to support specialty crop producers, from $10 million in fiscal 2008 to $49 million in fiscal 2009.

"When the 2009 budget is complete, AMS will re-evaluate," said Mr. Cox. But this is not the pot of change the specialty crop industry wants USDA to raid.

"Clearly, the industry worked very hard to make sure mandatory funding was going to be there," said Lisa Lochridge, public affairs director for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, who added that if more money is needed to enforce COOL, Congress should appropriate it.

Robert Guenther, senior vice president for public policy at the United Fresh Produce Association, said that USDA should not make this decision now, just days before a new administration takes over. "We think the decision should be rescinded," he said.

Congressional supporters of block grants are putting pressure on USDA to back off this assault, said Mr. Guenther. Obama's transition team is aware of this as well.