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WASHINGTON -- A record number of produce industry leaders will be arriving here to hear top policy makers and fill congressional offices during the United Fresh Produce Association's annual Washington Public Policy Conference, set for Sept. 9-11.

More than 400 produce industry leaders representing 35 states are signed up for the conference this year, Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for United Fresh, said during a Sept. 2 webinar. United Fresh held the on-line event to brief attendees on the issues to be addressed in preparation for their scheduled congressional visits.

The record turnout "shows the conference is steadily growing, especially in a year everyone is being careful about expenses," Ray Gilmer, United's vice president of communications, told The Produce News. Food safety and card check bills are driving interest in the conference, he said.

In the 1990s, Capitol Hill leaders may not have been aware of United Fresh, but that has changed, Brendan Comito, chief operating officer of Des Moines, IA-based Capital City Fruit Co., said during the webinar. "Now some of the top leaders know who we are and what we're about," he said. The conference also gives attendees a good opportunity to network with some of the 400 top produce industry leaders, he said.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack kicks off the Sept. 10 session with a keynote address during which he is likely to map out the Obama administration's efforts to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables. The three-day meeting will see briefings by many policy makers, including U.S. Food & Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, who was just announced as a speaker at the three-day conference.

"Given the importance of discussions about food safety legislation in Congress, Dr. Hamburg's contributions to the White House Food Safety Working Group and the FDA's recent issuance of commodity-specific guidelines for tomatoes, melons and leafy greens, this is an outstanding opportunity for our industry to hear from the commissioner," said Tom Stenzel, United Fresh president and chief executive officer.

A popular event last year, United Fresh is hosting another town hall meeting at the FDA offices to discuss food safety issues, along with a White House briefing. This year, the Canadian Produce Marketing Association and United Fresh are hosting a special session at the Canadian Embassy to discuss border harmonization issues for shippers. CPMA Chairman Adrian Abbott of B.C. Tree Fruits Ltd. will moderate the event.

But the heart of the WPPC meeting are the 140 congressional visits scheduled on the afternoon of Sept. 10. United Fresh will be sending 25-30 teams of produce industry members to discuss five key issues, Mr. Guenther said during the Sept. 2 webinar.

For this year's lobbying blitz, United is asking members of Congress to support a new policy on school salad bars, to sponsor AgJobs legislation to create a stable workforce, to re-establish the Mexican trucking pilot program, to support food safety legislation, and to oppose the Employee Free Choice Act.

The association will be displaying a salad bar at its Fresh Festival on Capitol Hill, the Sept. 9 reception where members of Congress and staff will mingle over plates fresh produce.

The conference closes Sept. 11 with luncheon speaker Paul Begala, a CNN analyst and former advisor to Bill Clinton, who will offer perspectives on policy debates in Washington.