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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 program.

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 California.

"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 Branch.

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 system.

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 the agency.

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.