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Food safety and healthcare reform highlight Texas Produce Association convention

by Tim Linden | August 30, 2009
Topics such as food safety, immigration reform and the overhaul of the national healthcare system rightfully took center stage when the Texas Produce Association held its annual convention Aug. 19-21 in Austin.

Last year, Hurricane Dolly raked the Texas Gulf Coast in late July forcing the 2008 convention to be postponed and ultimately relocated to McAllen, in the Rio Grande Valley, where most of the convention attendees live. This year, the association was able to once again put on its planned event in the shadow of the state capitol building and focus on the important issues of the day.

John McClung, president of the association, said that discussion of political topics did dominate the event, but most of the focus was on national rather than state issues, despite the close proximity to the state's political leaders.

"We had some excellent educational session," he said. "The panel discussing food-safety legislation came to the consensus that we will get a bill this year. The House has already passed a bill, and the Senate is debating one that is fairly similar. But unfortunately, it looks like we will have to wait until 2010 for immigration reform."

With regard to health care reform, Mr. McClung said that the panelists expressed the collective opinion that health care reform legislation in some form will pass, but it will not be the sweeping reform favored by the Obama administration.

Mr. McClung said that the Texas produce industry is very interested in the food-safety legislation debate, especially how it relates to imported produce. "Between 55 [percent] and 60 percent of what we sell are imports," he said. "We are very concerned that imports will be affected somewhat disproportionately when the final bill is written. Just how is the government going to enforce U.S. standards on product that is grown outside of the United States?"

The TPA executive said that the volume of imported produce moving through Texas was also covered in an educational session led by Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for the Produce Marketing Association. Earlier this year, the results of an economic impact study of the fresh produce and floral industry commissioned by PMA were released.

The study, which was conducted by Battelle's Technology Partnership Practice in Columbus, OH, was presented by the PMA executive during the session. The Battelle study found that the U.S. fresh produce and mass-market floral industry accounts for more than $275 billion in direct economic output, and a total economic impact of more than $554 billion when its downstream effects are included. Every dollar of production value ultimately generates $16.75 of total economic value.

Mr. McClung said that for Texas producers, the study confirmed the continued impact that the Lone Star State has on the fresh produce industry. Although its domestic production has fallen over the past couple of decades, Texas still ranks third behind California and Florida in providing produce to the United States when fresh imports are added to the equation.

Less than a generation ago, fresh produce production within Texas accounted for about 90 percent of the produce sold by Texas firms to U.S. consumers. Today, domestic production in Texas accounts for about 45 percent of the volume that Texas produce companies handle and sell to retail, foodservice and wholesale produce firms, but total volume is higher than it was a generation ago.

Mr. McClung said that the vast majority of the produce imports that come through the state are financed with U.S. dollars, controlled by U.S. companies, grown to U.S. standards and sold to U.S. consumers. While the fact that the production is south of the Rio Grande is important to Mexico's revenue stream, that piece of information is relatively unimportant to the buyers of the product north of the Rio Grande.

"I want to emphasize that these are Texas companies that largely control that product and sell it to the rest of the United States," Mr. McClung said. The Battelle study also revealed that Texas second in terms of consumption of fruits and vegetables in the United States, behind only California.

During the meeting, longtime Rio Grande Valley produce leader Bobby Lackey was honored with the 2009 Award of Merit from the Texas Vegetable Association. Mr. Lackey was with J.S. McManus Produce Inc. in Weslaco for many years, and he was always an active supporter and leader of many of the local produce groups. He served as president of the Texas Citrus & Vegetable Association in the late 1970s, which was the former name of the Texas Produce Association.

Texas Citrus Mutual's annual award went to Dave Hardison, who has been a member of Mutual's board of directors for almost 20 years.

While about 350 people were registered for the convention, Mr. McClung said that more were in attendance since the event was held in conjunction with a PMA food safety training seminar the first day of the convention and a Texas A&M event on the last day of the convention.