Food safety, health care reform hot topics at TPA convention
by Chip Carter | August 18, 2010
SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, TX - As is increasingly the case these days when
producers and purveyors of produce gather, food safety was a dominant topic
at the 2010 Texas Produce Association Convention, held here Aug. 11-13 at
the Sheraton Beach Hotel.
After a kickoff golf tournament Wednesday morning that drew dozens of
participants despite temperatures well over 100 degrees, followed by a low-
key welcoming reception later that evening at a well-known South Padre
hangout, Texas produce grower-shippers put on their 10-gallon work hats
Thursday morning to attempt to tackle the topic of food safety.
About three-quarters of the estimated 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
Mr. DeBerry told the attendees that "the Texas economy is faring better than
anywhere else in the nation," adding that 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 scene.
Texas in recent years has led the nation in job creation, Mr. DeBerry said. The
Lone Star State's $106 billion agriculture industry represents 10 percent of
the Texas economy and provides one of every 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 significant growing areas.
Partnerships and trading relations arising from that juxtaposition promise to
strengthen Texas' role in the produce business in coming years, he said.
Mexican imports already account for 60 percent of the state's produce
revenues. With the 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 that the agency will not have its
new produce regulations ready for review before the end of 2010. She said
that the initial version of the new rules 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, she said.
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 the United Fresh Produce Association. "The time is just about
upon us now. When Congress gets quiet, they're getting serious, and they've
been quiet for a while now."
HR 2749 - commonly referred to as the Food Safety Enhancement Act - was
fast-tracked in the U.S. 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 he has recently seen several e-mails indicating that SB 510
is moving again. "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, giving
attendees the chance to browse booths from dozens of exhibitors before
heading to an afternoon session on the effects of health-care reform on
owners of produce-related businesses.
Cathleen Enright, the Washington, DC-based vice president of federal
government affairs for the Western Growers Association, said that while full
implementation will take as long as three years, the first phases of health-
care reform could begin to take a toll on grower-shippers by the end of this
The industry had hoped for a seasonal worker exemption - and had one in
early versions of the legislation - "but every other industry claimed it, too,"
Ms. Enright said, "so it was removed from the final bill."
Eventually, grower-shippers will be responsible for health care for uninsured
workers who are on payroll at least 30 hours a week for a minimum of 120
days in a calendar year, according to Ms. Enright. In some cases, they will also
be responsible for those employees' family members.
There are tax breaks for employers, and Ms. Enright said that she expects the
bill will be tweaked further before being fully implemented.
"There is no chance of this being repealed," Ms. Enright told dismayed
grower-shippers, "but pieces of it could be. We're operating as if it's going
into law like this. We do not want to take any chances that this goes forward
and leaves our folks high and dry."
"They might as well issue razor blades at the door," commented one
Ms. Enright was cautiously optimistic that industry appeals to Congress have
"Washington got it," she said. "They understand this comes completely off the
margin. But the insurance lobby is very strong in Washington."
Following the business sessions, attendees cut loose Thursday evening with a
casino night and silent auction before official business resumed Friday
morning with the Tribute to the Produce Industry Leaders awards breakfast.
Honorees were McAllen, TX, citrus farmer and salesman Fred Karle of Karle
Farms, who won the 2010 Texas Citrus Mutual Special Award; Jose Amador of
Texas A&M University, who was honored with the Texas Vegetable
Association President's Award for lifetime service; and McAllen, TX, grower
Jimmy Pawlik of Pawlik Farms, who received the Texas Vegetable
Association's Award of Merit.