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WASHINGTON -- Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), a longtime champion of the school snack program, is stepping down as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee to lead a Senate health committee that is expected to take up food-safety legislation this fall.

On Sept. 9, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) started the reshuffling of top Senate posts when he announced that he would not seek chairmanship of the Senate health committee following the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA). The Iowa senator announced that he would take that seat, leaving Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) to become head of the powerful agriculture committee charged with overseeing climate change, child nutrition and other pressing issues likely to touch produce businesses.

Sen. Lincoln, who comes from a rice-farming family, is more likely to be familiar with traditional crop issues, United Fresh Produce Association's Robert Guenther told The Produce News, adding that her new position represents a "different opportunity" for United Fresh. Sen. Harkin will still serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee, although committee priorities are likely to change with a new chairman, he said.

"She is perhaps one of the more well-versed members of this body when it comes to agriculture and rural policy, said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for her, and I am confident that under her leadership, we will continue to work on behalf of all agriculture."

In the meantime, Sen. Harkin will now take the lead in shepherding food- safety reform legislation, which passed the House in July. Some issues still need to be hammered out in the Senate, he said, such as eliminating a House-passed provision that requires mandatory testing of products, ensuring produce standards are commodity-specific and swapping out the $500 fee on all food facilities for government spending of food-safety reforms.