view current print edition




Opening day of Texas convention focuses on food safety

by Chip Carter | August 11, 2010
SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, TX -- As is increasingly the case these days when producers and purveyors of produce gather, food safety was an inescapable topic on the opening day of the 2010 Texas Produce Association convention, set to run Aug. 11-13 at the Sheraton Beach Hotel, here.

After a kickoff golf tournament Wednesday morning that drew dozens of participants despite temperatures well over 100 degrees and a low-key welcoming reception later that evening at a well-known South Padre hangout, Texas produce grower-shippers put their 10-gallon work hats on Thursday morning to tackle the topic of food safety.

About three-quarters of the estimated 250-300 convention attendees packed a conference room Thursday morning for a panel discussion on food safety moderated by Drew DeBerry, deputy commissioner of the Texas Department of Agriculture.

Mr. DeBerry told the attendees that "the Texas economy is faring better than anywhere else in the nation." Low taxes and a predictable regulatory structure are part of the reason for that -- and part of the reason for the state's rising prominence in the national produce picture.

Texas in recent years has led the nation in job creation, Mr. DeBerry said. Part of that is due to the Lone Star State’s $106 billion agriculture industry, which represents 10 percent of the Texas economy and provides one-in-seven jobs here.

“Texas leads in things we get involved in,” Mr. DeBerry said. “We don’t want to get involved in things we can’t lead in.”

That being the case, Mr. DeBerry said that Texas expects to be a leader in the area of food safety. The topic is of primary importance to the state, since it shares its border with some of Mexico’s more significant growing areas. Partnerships and trading relations arising from that juxtaposition promise to strengthen Texas’ role in the produce business in coming years.

Mexican imports already account for 60 percent of the state’s produce revenues. With the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and Congress promising that imported produce will be held to the same standards as domestic when new regulations come about, food safety takes on added importance in Texas.

Michelle Smith, senior policy analyst with the FDA’s Office of Food Safety in Washington, DC, told attendees at the convention’s keynote luncheon that it is the agency’s intention to “apply regulations to fresh produce regardless of where it is produced. The mechanism for enforcement may be difficult … but there has been a huge increase in imported food and our regulatory responsibilities need to shift along with that.”

Dr. Smith said that it has become apparent in recent days that the agency will not have its new produce regulations ready for review before the end of 2010. She said htat the initial regulation will be published some time in 2011, but she could not be specific. Regardless of the date, there will be an opportunity for further industry review and comment before the new regulations become law.

Meanwhile, Congress is racing to pass food safety legislation before the end of 2010, said panelist David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology for United Fresh Produce Association. “The time is just about upon us now,” he said. “When Congress gets quiet, they’re getting serious, and they’ve been quiet for awhile now.”

HR 2749 -- the Food Safety Enhancement Act -- was fast-tracked in the House of Representatives in June 2009. A similar bill in the Senate, SB 510, was approved in March 2009. That legislation came out of committee in November, “then everything went silent,” Dr. Gombas said, adding that in recent days he has seen several e-mails indicating that SB 510 is moving again, and that “we expect some additional activity shortly, and we expect it to pass before the end of the year.”

Following the keynote luncheon, the convention expo floor opened. Attendees browsed booths from dozens of exhibitors before many headed to an afternoon session on the impact of health care reform on owners of produce-related businesses.

After all the work, the attendees planned to cut loose Thursday evening with a casino night and silent auction before official business resumed Friday morning with a "Tribute to the Produce Industry Leaders" awards breakfast at 8 a.m. The expo floor was to reopen at 9 a.m., and the annual board meetings of the Texas Produce Association and the Texas Vegetable Association were scheduled for mid-morning.