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United Fresh maps out WPPC agenda

by Joan Murphy | September 07, 2010
WASHINGTON — The timing could not be better for the United Fresh Produce Association's Washington Public Policy Conference. Congress will be making decisions on childhood nutrition and food safety bills when United Fresh holds its conference, here, Sept. 14-16.

Food-safety legislation may reach the Senate floor when Congress returns from its summer break Sept. 13, and the House of Representatives will be rushing to complete action on a childhood nutrition bill before the program expires Sept. 30, Robert Guenther, United Fresh’s senior vice president of government relations, said during an Aug. 31 webcast for conference attendees.

Every fall, United Fresh brings fresh produce industry leaders to Washington to meet with lawmakers and staff to discuss top-shelf legislative issues and delve into regulatory concerns with key Cabinet and other administration officials. The top legislative issues this year are childhood nutrition, food safety, immigration reform, Mexico tariffs and card-check legislation.

Congress has nine legislative days to wrap up action on the federal childhood nutrition legislation, and United Fresh does not want any more extensions, Lorelei DiSogra, the association’s vice president of nutrition and health, said during the webcast. The Child Nutrition & WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004 expired Sept. 30, 2009, but Congress extended the school feeding programs until Sept. 30, 2010.

The fresh produce industry supports the Aug. 5-passed Senate bill that would increase the federal reimbursement rate per meal for schools that serve healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables. The bill also directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set nutrition standards for all foods and beverages sold in schools, a move Ms. DiSogra said would rid schools of junk food.

United Fresh does not favor a provision in the $8 billion bill pending in the House that would add frozen and dried commodities to the fruit and vegetable school snack program. "We are opposed to any changes to this program," she said. The provision would weaken the integrity of a program that doles out fresh fruits and vegetables to school-aged children, she said. The Obama administration supports the Senate bill and wants it passed by the Sept. 30 deadline, Ms. DiSogra added.

With a nationwide egg recall and a ground beef recall in full swing, there is pressure on the Senate to act on food-safety legislation the week of Sept. 13 when Congress returns to work, Mr. Guenther said.

Produce leaders will be advocating for food-safety legislation that does not include finished-product testing, user fees or geographical quarantine provisions, he said. The industry wants to make sure Congress gives the U.S. Food & Drug Administration clear direction to write produce safety standards that are commodity-specific and risk-based, he said.

Immigration reform may come up, and United Fresh members will be urging Congress to make a “down payment” on reform this year with a bill that addresses agricultural labor issues, Mr. Guenther said.

Produce leaders also will be telling Congress about the financial blow produce companies are experiencing as a result of the Mexico truck pilot program trade war. Congress should push the Obama administration to reinstate an acceptable safety program to allow Mexican trucks to enter the country, a move that would remove the damaging retaliatory tariffs that were recently extended to apples and pears, he said.

Finally, Mr. Guenther said that card-check legislation may come up if Congress returns for a lame-duck session after the mid-term elections in November. “We oppose efforts to modify the current secret ballot election system,” he said.