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Produce industry sees full plate of issues in Washington for 2010

by Joan Murphy | January 07, 2010
WASHINGTON -- All eyes have been on Congress during the heated health- care reform debate in recent months, but the produce industry will likely have a full plate in 2010 as a variety of issues in Washington may shape future regulations for businesses.

"I think it will be a full agenda for 2010," Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy at the United Fresh Produce Association, told The Produce News. Even though it's an election year, "I don't see them slowing down."

As usual, Congress is considering a range of issues that include food-safety legislation, childhood nutrition, immigration reform and climate change, said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs at the Produce Marketing Association.

Congress is expected to wrap up health-care reform, which produce groups are eyeing for its handling of seasonal and temporary agricultural workers, before it's likely to complete action on food-safety legislation, said Mr. Guenther.

A different version of the House-passed food-safety bill is likely to pass the Senate early in 2010, clearing the way for lawmakers to iron out differences between the bills in conference committee. Both versions of food-safety reform would expand the U.S. Food & Drug Administration's oversight of the food supply by giving it the power to order recalls, increase inspection rates and require all facilities to have a food-safety plan in place.

The bills would require the FDA to write produce-safety standards, which FDA is already planning to propose in October.

Congress plans to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act early this year, which will provide an opportunity for the produce industry to increase the presence of fruits and vegetables in school lunch programs.

On Dec. 16, Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) and Rep. Adam Putnam (R-FL) introduced legislation that would encourage schools to set up salad bars and other policy changes to increase fresh produce consumption in school meals. The Obama administration has signaled its intent to push immigration reform this year, but it's far from clear how much play the issue will receive on Capitol Hill.

"We're always hopeful," said Ms. Means, referring to the prospect of immigration reform legislation this year, adding that it remains unclear whether AgJOBS legislation would move separately or within a comprehensive bill. The issue continues to be urgent, as targeted federal enforcement of immigration laws can have a "chilling effect" on the industry.

"We've got to prepare like it's going to happen," said Mr. Guenther. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) introduced the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America's Security & Prosperity Act of 2009 in December, which includes AgJOBS legislation, and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) is expected to introduce a bill in March, Mr. Guenther said.

The Senate has yet to act on a climate bill, an issue that is raising concern in the agriculture community, according to Ms. Means, who said that growing fruits and vegetables is an energy-intensive undertaking and that "a solution for agriculture in general may not work for the fruit and vegetable industry." Besides Capitol Hill, the FDA is expected to be busy this year if food-safety legislation is approved.

The new legislation will "open a floodgate of new rule writing," and much of the provisions in the House and Senate food-safety bills require a tight deadline of one year to two years to get the rules out, according to David Acheson, former FDA associate commissioner for foods and now managing director of the food and import safety practice at Leavitt Partners.

For example, the legislation would require FDA to set up a foreign supplier verification system that would require importers to perform risk-based verification of imports.

FDA also would set up a voluntary qualified importer program that would allow importers which procure foods from foreign suppliers certified by FDA- cleared third-party auditors to gain expedited review of foods at the border. Landmark food-safety legislation means that FDA will receive more resources to conduct targeted enforcement and mandatory recalls and design a mandatory traceability system for the food industry, said Kenneth Odza of the Seattle-based law firm Stoel Rives, who counsels firms on recalls.

Already, Mr. Odza said that the current administration has been very aggressive in using its current enforcement powers. FDA is "more aggressive in getting information out to the public on a recall," he noted.

At the USDA, Ms. Means said that PMA will be looking for a review of the country-of-origin labeling program and the possibility of a fee increase for the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act.

Finally, produce groups will need to get their wish list organized for the 2012 farm bill, as House Agriculture Committee Chairman Colin Peterson (D-MN) told reporters that he plans to hold hearings on the next farm bill this spring.