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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 of Agriculture.

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 year.

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 disgruntled grower.

Ms. Enright was cautiously optimistic that industry appeals to Congress have been heard.

"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.