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Produce industry meets with USDA and EPA chiefs on regulatory issues

by Joan Murphy | June 22, 2010
WASHINGTON -- The federal government promotes a diet rich in fruits and vegetables but is silent when it comes to defending its science-based pesticide safety limits in news stories attacking the produce industry.

This was the message delivered by United Fresh Produce Association Chairman Steffanie Smith and other industry representatives who met June 15 with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson.

"We asked them, especially EPA, to be more fierce in their response when critics attack EPA pesticide residues," said Ms. Smith, who is chief executive officer of River Point Farms, a leading onion producer. "They're attacking EPA's commitment to public health."

The produce industry was focusing remarks on the Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen report, a list of 12 fruits and vegetables with the most pesticide residues, which was spotlighted on CNN's "Toxic America" show during a June 2-3 investigative report.

Eight groups met on how EPA and USDA could work together in supporting industry and on regulatory issues of concern to produce businesses, said Ms. Smith. Along with United Fresh, representatives from the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Western Growers Association, Produce Marketing Association, National Potato Council, Cherry Marketing Institute, U.S. Apple Association and National Council of Farmers Cooperatives attended the unusual meeting.

FFVA President Mike Stuart said that this marked the first time in his memory that the industry met jointly with two top-level officials whose agencies have such a major impact on producers.

The Florida group raised concerns about the potential impact of EPA's proposed Numeric Nutrient Criteria on Florida agriculture. FFVA Chairman Jim Mercer said that more research was needed to assess the impact of mitigation strategies on water quality within farming operations, and that it was highly unlikely that producers would be able to meet the standards. A final rule is due in October.

Other issues raised at the meeting included pesticide-use permits under the Clean Water Act, fumigant label changes and food safety legislation. There's a "fear factor" among mid-sized farmers who are worrying about the viability of agriculture from added regulation, Ms. Smith said.

"I was impressed by the sense of cooperation between EPA and USDA at the highest level," Ms. Smith said after the meeting. "We intend to have more communication within industry and more communication with EPA and USDA."