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USDA industry advisory group tackles range of issues at two-day meeting

by Joan Murphy | March 09, 2011

ARLINGTON, VA -- Health care reform, agricultural labor shortfalls and produce safety regulations were just some of the items on produce industry's agenda at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Fruit & Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee meeting this month.

The group of industry leaders tackled a wide range of issues at the meeting, held here Feb. 28-March 1.

Cathy Enright of Western Growers Association said that the industry is looking for a technical fix to the health care reform law's new employer mandate that would require agricultural employers to cover seasonal workers or face steep fines. If a company has more than 50 full time equivalents and does not offer health care, the firm could be subject to fines, so it depends on the definition of FTEs, she said.

"They're willing to talk about ways to fix it," Ms. Enright said, referring to officials at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, which administers the health care reform law.

A coalition of groups is also working on Capitol Hill because the change will require a legislative fix to gain full exemption of agricultural seasonal employees, she added.

Oscar Gonzales, deputy director at the USDA, said that the committee should continue making its case for agricultural labor reform on Capitol Hill and at the Department of Labor.

While the industry continues pushing for USDA and the labor department to coordinate on worker issues, the group also heard the latest timeline for the Food & Drug Administration's produce safety regulations.

The FDA is planning to propose produce safety regulations on Dec. 30, followed by a 75-day comment period, several public meetings on the proposal and a final regulation a year later, said Leanne Skelton, an FDA senior policy analyst on loan from the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service Fresh Products Branch.

"The overarching concern is the impact of produce recalls on the industry and on the public confidence in the foods," said Tom Lovelace, executive vice president of McEntire Produce.

There should be a role the produce industry can play in bringing the recalls to a speedy conclusion, said Mr. Lovelace, who added that there is an increasing number of recalls that are being conducted due to surveillance on the industry.


Feeding programs

In other news, the committee delved into the rule of fruits and vegetables in two major feeding programs: the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants & Children.

The advisory group recommended SNAP and WIC purchases be analyzed to create a baseline for fruit and vegetable purchases, and USDA set goals to ensure expenditures by different product categories match up to the latest Dietary Guidelines recommendations.

The industry advisory group also wants to stay updated on USDA's soon-to-be-launched pilot program in Massachusetts that will provide an incentive for SNAP purchasers to buy fruits and vegetables, and called on USDA to require that WIC vendors stock at least four fruits and four vegetables, with half of those designed as fresh.