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United Fresh rallies WPPC to defend key programs from budget cuts

by Joan Murphy | October 05, 2011

WASHINGTON -- The Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Program may be successful in supplying more than 4 million children healthy snacks each day, but it's no time to sit back and relax in times of budget cuts, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) warned attendees of the United Fresh Produce Association's Washington Public Policy Conference.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) was the keynote speaker at the opening breakfast and general session Tuesday, Oct. 4, part of United's Washington Public Policy Conference, Oct. 3-5 in the nation's capital. Mr. Harkin, author of the Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Program in the 2002 farm bill, is chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions. (Photo by Gordon M. Hochberg)

More than 500 business leaders from 35 states heard from key senators and members of Congress on a wide range of issues, from new E-Verify and school nutrition initiatives to the looming farm bill legislation at the association's annual conference.

Ten years after Sen. Harkin floated the idea of a fruit and vegetable snack program, he warned the spirit of the program and its funding must be defended.

"I'm well aware it's a successful program and others may want to piggyback on it," he said Oct. 4, referring to attempts to open it up to dried fruit, nuts, and canned and frozen fruits and vegetables.

"We have to maintain the focus and the uniqueness of the program," he said, referring to the benefits of supplying fresh produce.

But at the conference, a representative from Sun Maid Growers stood up to tell Sen. Harkin the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance had unanimously voted to "restore" dried fruit to the school snack program, and that the school program should be extended to dried fruit.

In an awkward exchange, Sen. Harkin shot back that if dried fruit were allowed in the program, other commodities would try to follow, and that a recent government report expressed concern about the "sugar boost" dried fruit gives children.

Produce companies should weigh in on the need to maintain programs such as the school snack program and other market and research initiatives as the "super committee," a band of 12 lawmakers tasked with making more than $1 trillion in budget cuts, considers programs to slash, Sen. Harkin advised attendees.

"This is not the year to ask for more money but to maintain what we have," said Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for United Fresh, who spoke at an earlier panel on the need to protect the $150 million a year funding for the school snack program.

Ms. DiSogra said that the U.S. Department of Agriculture also should move ahead with a final rule that would double fruits and vegetables in school meals, hopefully by early December.

United Fresh also rallied members as they prepared for Capitol Hill visits to defend the current $3 billion investment in specialty crops when Congress moves to quickly lay the groundwork for the next farm bill.

"Agriculture has a big target drawn on its back," Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS), ranking member of the powerful Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry, said during a luncheon speech, adding that USDA's Market Access Program is an example of a beneficial program targeted by some in Congress as wasteful.

Sen. Roberts also railed against the "Katrina wave of regulations" that is hindering businesses, and he praised the Obama administration for "finally, finally, finally" moving trade agreements for Columbia, Panama and South Korea.

Another key issue United Fresh members were concerned about is the impact of a mandatory E-Verify system on the agricultural workforce.

It's one of the most challenging issues in some time, Robert Guenther, senior vice president for public policy at United Fresh, said during a panel discussion.

"They need to hear how it will devastate our industry," Mr. Guenther said before members took to Capitol Hill. "There are a lot of people who don't believe us."

Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA) spoke to the group about the need to create a new agricultural guest worker program and link it to E-Verify system, which is gaining steam in Congress.

The Food & Drug Administration's implementation of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act is another issue the trade association is watching closely.

Congress can provide oversight to this process, so lawmakers are "looking over FDA's shoulder" as they write regulations, said Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of United Fresh.

The FDA is on a strict timetable to issue new food-safety regulations for produce, transportation, food defense and traceability.

"These things will change our world," cautioned David Gombas, senior vice president for food safety and technology at United Fresh.

The understaffed agency also will be looking for new ways to fund the program, as it knows Congress is unlikely to give the agency more money -- another issue industry will have to maintain vigilance.

On the positive side, the FDA has shown an unprecedented willingness to listen to the industry, Dr. Gombas added.