USDA's 'buy local’ program unpopular with industry committee
by Joan Murphy | April 01, 2010
WASHINGTON -- Some members of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Fruit
& Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee gave a cold shoulder to USDA's buy
local emphasis in school farming initiatives during a March 30 meeting, here.
The 25-member panel, which represents growers, retailers and other
segments of the produce industry, heard updates from officials from USDA
and the Food & Drug Administration on key policy issues confronting the
industry this year. Among the agenda items were updates on commodity
procurements, the proposed leafy greens marketing agreement, FDA produce
safety regulations and USDA's Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food and Farm
to School initiatives.
Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary of agriculture, challenged the panel to
weigh in on several issues, including the Farm to School program, which she
said was likely to be part of any Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill.
Commenting on the federal leafy greens marketing agreement, Ms. Merrigan
said that the Agricultural Marketing Service is "working very hard to bring it
to the point of public comment." But she said that AMS needs to iron out the
role of small and mid-size players or "it politically won't gel," and the group
must respond to environmental criticisms of the California marketing
She called for the panel's help on Good Agricultural Practices certification and
challenged the advisory committee to think of innovative ways to increase
produce useage in school feeding programs.
USDA staff briefed the group on its Farm to School initiative that is designed
to connect schools with regional or local farms in order to serve healthy
meals using locally produced foods. Committee members questioned whether
USDA should be stepping into school-buying decisions and deciding where
schools should purchase fruits and vegetables.
School budgets are already stretched thin, and it may unwise to reduce the
number of servings by buying more expensive local products, said Vaughn
Koligian, director of corporate sustainability at Sun-Maid Growers of
"We're hearing concerns about unintended consequences," said Lorna
Christie, senior vice president and chief operating office at the Produce
Marketing Association. "We're asking, 'Don't differentiate by saying only local
farms have good products.'"
The group also heard an update on the nearly $700 million in USDA fruit and
vegetable purchases for school-feeding programs last year and USDA's latest
move to purchase baby carrots packaged in two-ounce bags for schools.
In 2009, USDA purchased $4 million in fresh-cut sliced apples to test the
feasibility of purchasing fresh and fresh-cut produce to schools.
Lisa McNeece, vice president for Grimmway Enterprises, said that her
company is rolling out a half-million pounds of baby carrots for schools and
hopes the program expands.
USDA plans to pick a third commodity for the schools next year, said Ron
Ulibarri, acting assistant branch chief, USDA's Commodity Procurement
During the late-afternoon session, the group shifted its focus to FDA's
proposed rule -- due out later this year -- that would make mandatory food-
safety rules for farms and packinghouses. FDA officials shared few details
about the pending rule, however.
"We want to set standards that are enforceable and fair," said Jim Gorny, FDA's
senior advisor for produce safety.
He said that FDA is looking for advice on a range of complex policy issues,
such as the use of modern testing techniques in validating a prevention
system and how to incorporate the size of operations in writing a mandatory
FDA and USDA officials at the first day of the meeting stressed the
unprecedented coordination between the two agencies while FDA drafts the
produce rule. That coordination was cemented when Leanne Skelton, chief of
the Fresh Products Branch and 22-year veteran at AMS, agreed to help FDA
write its produce rule in October.
Ms. Skelton's six-month loan to FDA has expanded to a 12-month detail at
During the second day's session, United Fresh Produce Association President
Tom Stenzel said that the industry's effort to harmonize GAP audits will hold
its next meeting April 19 when a technical working group will report its
findings to a full steering committee. The technical working group, which has
met three times, has examined the similarities and differences in all existing
GAP standards in use.
The effort, which is being spearheaded by United Fresh, is to establish one
audit by any credible third party that would be acceptable to all buyers. A
group of growers, shippers, processors, retailers and foodservice
representatives are working on the initiative.
"I believe the technical people are going to get to a single audit … that will
work for everybody," Mr. Stenzel told The Produce News. But the challenge is
whether business people will back it and genuinely adhere to one standard,
he said, adding that retailers who are participating in the effort have pledged
to do just that.
"We're also making sure the harmonized audit follows FDA standards," and
the group plans to ask FDA to "endorse a single audit" as part of its produce
safety regulation, he said.
At the end of the meeting, the panel agreed to form the following four
working groups: USDA's Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative;
commodity procurement and the Department of Defense Fresh Fruit &
Vegetable program; labor; and food safety, GAPs and traceability.