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WASHINGTON -- A salad bar in every school was just one of a handful of pressing legislative priorities that brought more than 400 produce leaders to attend the United Fresh Produce Association's Washington Public Policy Conference, held here Sept. 9-11.

More than half of the produce industry representatives gathered met with congressional staff during the annual conference, carrying a message to boost nutrition programs, pass a produce-friendly food safety bill, reform immigration policies and block the Employee Free Choice Act.

The national debate is currently focused on health-care reform and the cost of sickness in this country, U.S. Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) said during the Sept. 10 luncheon and general session. But there is a lot of discussion among lawmakers about the cost of preventing disease -- and that's where a diet rich in fruits and vegetables comes in, he said.

Rep. Farr, who represents the produce-rich Salinas Valley, plans to introduce legislation that would streamline school feeding programs and encourage schools to add a salad bar as part of their lunch offerings. The U.S. Department of Agriculture would have 18 months to update Congress about how the salad bars increased fruit and vegetable consumption among school-aged kids, he said. The soon-to-be-introduced bill would also set new commodity goals for USDA to increase fruit and vegetable purchases.

Congress is likely to vote on a flat, one-year reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which sunsets this month, leaving lawmakers more time to address major restructuring of school feeding programs next year, he said.

Placing a salad bar in schools decreases consumption of fried foods and lowers the risk of obesity, Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for United Fresh, said during a legislative roundtable. She urged United members to ask members of Congress during their Capitol Hill visits to co- sponsor Rep. Farr's bill.

Nutrition issues were front and center during the three-day meeting. United Fresh also is working at increasing the monetary value of vouchers under the Women, Infants & Children Program, which for the first time allow mothers and young children to purchase a broad array of fruits and vegetables through the program.

But the Washington conference would not be complete without discussion of a looming food safety bill that is sure to require new safety regulations for the produce industry.

The House of Representatives-passed food safety bill has come "light years" from the original bill, and the additional changes have improved it, said Randy Russell, partner at Lesher, Russell & Barron Inc., legislative counsel for United Fresh. But the bill should make no exceptions for small farmers, who have been lobbying for relief from some of the bill's food safety requirements, he said during a panel discussion on legislative priorities.

Even so, Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, said that the agency needs to be sensitive to small farmers and organic growers and to come up with "scale appropriate" controls in drafting a mandatory food safety program.

Dr. Hamburg, who spoke at the Sept. 11 breakfast session, said that FDA officials will continue to tour U.S. produce operations to help understand the industry's operations as they draft new safety requirements. "We need to listen and learn to do our job right," she told WPPC attendees.

FDA's produce safety rules will be based on available science and will be targeted to commodities where regulatory standards may make a real impact on safety, she said. FDA also needs access to records, imported product controls, mandatory recall authority and traceback rules, all components of a food safety bill before the Senate, she said.

After Dr. Hamburg spoke, United President Tom Stenzel told the audience that the upcoming changes will "affect us at every level" and aren't going to be easy to meet. "It's up to us" to rise to the challenge.

The changes likely to come from food safety legislation will affect not just U.S. companies. Congress needs to consider the impact of food-safety measures on trade and to avoid a "thickening of the border," said Chris Leggett, the Canadian Embassy's first secretary of agriculture. A busload of WPPC conferees traveled to the Canadian Embassy to meet with Mr. Leggett in a special session co-sponsored by the Canadian Produce Marketing Association.

It is important to have a close relationship between the two trading partners for fresh produce trade to flourish, said CPMA Chairman Adrian Abbott, marketing services manager for B.C. Tree Fruits Ltd.

Canadian officials are closely eying the bill's impact on registration fees for importers, new import certification rules and traceability requirements. "We don't want lawmakers to hear just an anti-trade message" when considering new food-safety legislation, he said.

Other issues on the Canadian Embassy's radar screen include a National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, biotechnology issues, climate change legislation, organic rules and nutrition labeling requirements.