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Finding welcome in the new Washington

by Tom OBrien | September 20, 2009
WASHINGTON -- It is an active and energetic time here in the nation's capital. Bills of enormous consequence for our industry - and our country - are stacking up on the House and Senate floors, and the executive branch unveils new initiatives with regularity.

While ideology and policy goals shape one's particular view of these events, no matter where you stand, the changes may be profound. The produce industry's level of engagement will determine its ability to influence the course of that change -- and may even in the end create new business opportunities.

To win in Washington, you have to be in the game. While it is vitally important to our industry that we try to shape the issues that affect our businesses, it is not as difficult as you might think to make our voices heard.

It may seem counterintuitive, but the new focus on food-safety reform has sparked a new openness. Some feared that Congress and the Obama administration would hear only what consumer groups had to say, and then legislate without regard to the realities of operating a produce business. That did not happen in the House of Representatives. Just before its August recess, the House passed its version of food-safety reform by a vote of 283-142. Compared to other issues that bitterly divide the House along party lines, the 54 Republican votes for this legislation stands as a symbol of bipartisanship.

Just looking at the final House bill does not tell you have far that bill came from its earlier versions. The many changes to the bill were the result of energetic engagement by PMA, our allies and other concerned parties - and a willingness by the authors to address the concerns raised by stakeholders including the produce industry.

Time and again, whether on fees, traceability or FDA's authority to quarantine a region, the bill significantly improved by our standards at each step in the process. While the bill is not perfect and the produce industry will continue to advocate changes as the legislative process continues, we are already in a much better place than we started.

It is now up to the Senate to take up the bill. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) recently relinquished his chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee for the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee. His new committee has jurisdiction over food safety, and with his knowledge of farming issues and practices, he is uniquely positioned to oversee food-safety legislation. However, health care reform is currently occupying that committee, so it is uncertain when its attention might turn to food safety. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), who earlier this year drafted what will be the starting point for Senate action, will continue to play a leadership role as well.

With the changes made to the House bill, it now aligns more closely with the Durbin bill, increasing the chances of passing a bill while narrowing the parameters of the final legislation. PMA will continue our advocacy work in the Senate, with the goal of moving the bill toward reforms that are consistent with industry's own efforts to enhance food safety.

Whenever it is enacted, it is clear that the new legislation will give broad new powers to the Food & Drug Administration. Meanwhile, neither FDA nor the other food-safety agencies are sitting idle waiting for those new laws. To inform its work, Commissioner Margaret Hamburg and other senior FDA officials have invited produce representatives and other stakeholders to FDA headquarters to share concerns, and they have traveled to the field to see first hand produce operations.

The week of Sept. 7, PMA hosted Commissioner Hamburg and other FDA officials on a tour of small farms in the Delaware-Maryland area, while the week of Sept. 14 the Center for Produce Safety was hosting FDA officials on a tour through California's Central and Salinas valleys. PMA's Bob Whitaker, who chairs the center's technical committee, was scheduled to participate in that tour.

The Delaware trip is particularly significant because FDA asked to see small farms, and has pledged to impose food-safety requirements that protect the public health but are sensitive to the unique needs of different operations. Officials at FDA, an agency long criticized for not understanding the produce industry, have clearly embarked on a new openness.

Like the FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has also reached out to our industry, offering new opportunities for transparency and industry collaboration. Amidst an unprecedented celebration of produce marked by gardens at the White House and USDA, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has repeatedly called for an increase in the consumption of fruits and vegetables in the American diet.

At Fresh Summit, leaders of two USDA agencies -- the Agricultural Marketing Service and the Food & Nutrition Service -- will be speaking to the industry about new initiatives at USDA to carry out the secretary's call. Getting more fresh produce into USDA commodity programs requires that federal officials reinvent the methods of procurement and reverse long-term trends of local schools moving away from preparing food in cafeterias.

It is to the benefit of industry members, schooled in distribution of a perishable commodity, to work with USDA to make this work and create new markets for fresh produce.

Whether we are working for USDA nutrition programs or food-safety reform, the new openness we are seeing in Washington offers a new promise of working collaboratively with government so that the end result accommodates the day-to-day realities of our business. For too long, our industry and its regulators had an uneasy relationship, often marked by little communication.

Moving forward, the engagement and understanding that we are now building through both good times and bad can help to better inform government decision making and crisis management. How much so is up to us.

(Tom O'Brien is the Washington, DC, representative of the Produce Marketing Association. He has extensive experience in agriculture regulatory issues at the state level as deputy director of the Washington, DC, office of California Gov. Gray Davis, and at the federal level as associate administrator of USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, and as an attorney in the Office of White House Counsel.)