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USDA Fruit And Vegetable Advisory Committee Falls Short Of Mandatory Regulation Recommendation

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, June 15, 2007

Very few industry institutions are more important than the USDA Fruit and Vegetable Advisory Committee. The produce industry often struggles to be heard in Washington amidst the enormous weight of the so-called “program crops” — commodities such as wheat, corn, soybeans and cotton.

Virtually all the money USDA doles out goes to these large crops, and they so dominate the USDA that other concerns easily get lost. This committee is different, however. Its purpose is described as follows:

Background: Secretary Veneman issued two-year charters to the Committee in August 2001 and July 2003 under the authority of the Federal Advisory Committee Act. The Committee’s role is to develop recommendations for submission to the Secretary of Agriculture on ways USDA can tailor programs to better meet the needs of the U.S. produce industry. Secretary Johanns subsequently extended charters to this Advisory Committee in June 2005 and most recently in May 2007.

So this is the produce industry’s direct link to USDA — the one way we can be certain our concerns are acknowledged and our voices heard. On the most important produce industry issue of our times — food safety — we might expect that the Committee would send a strong message reiterating the positions already approved by the two national produce trade associations — the United Fresh Produce Association and Produce Marketing Association.

And the Committee did recently meet in Washington, D.C. and did send a recommendation to USDA regarding food safety, but it was not the position that United Fresh and PMA have endorsed.

We ran a piece entitled PMA And United Agree On Federal Food Safety Regulation, which detailed the joint position:

“We are pleased that both associations have reached an independent but common conclusion that produce safety standards must be federally mandated, risk-based and allow for commodity-specific regulation,” said United Fresh Chairman Emanuel Lazopoulos and PMA Chairman Peter Goulet. “Such standards should be uniform and should apply consistently to an individual commodity or commodity group regardless of its place of production,” they said.

“Both Boards of Directors believe that our industry must work together to support appropriate action and oversight by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in order to ensure public confidence in the food supply,” they said.

The advice to the USDA given by the Fruit & Vegetable Advisory Committee did not call for mandatory regulation and did not suggest that USDA allow the FDA to take the lead on food safety regulation in the produce industry.

Why is this?

Well, national produce organizations such as PMA and United do not have their association executives on the committee, which wouldn’t be a problem except that you do have association executives from regional grower groups. Right now, Mike Stuart of Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association and Matt McInerney of Western Growers Association are on the committee. In fact Mike is co-chair and will be the next chairman if tradition is followed.

Now both Mike and Matt are good guys, smart individuals, and this Pundit would hire either of them to represent his interests any day. The problem is that the staff members of associations probably shouldn’t be on the board. After all they are not free to evaluate the evidence and cast a vote without being obligated to vote in favor of the policies that their associations support.

Even more, there is disequilibrium when certain board members walk into the room with an agenda — get the USDA advisory board to issue a recommendation WGA or FFVA can support — while most board members are independent businesspeople, who have no predetermined agenda.

Now imagine any negotiation: one party enters with a clear goal he wishes to achieve, the other party has no such goal. Who do you think is more likely to obtain their goal as the outcome of that negotiation?

That is really what happened here. Mike Stuart fought hard to keep the word mandatory out of the document. Matt McInerney already was committed to the position, and without Tom Stenzel of United Fresh and Bryan Silbermann of PMA on the board to provide counterweight, there was no driving force for the board to issue a ringing endorsement of the United Fresh and PMA resolutions.

It is a shame. This was a shot to communicate a unified produce industry position on mandatory regulation directly to the Secretary of Agriculture.

Two boards that represent a cross-section of the trade, United Fresh and PMA, have endorsed mandatory regulation. The committee should also have supported that mandatory language.

Instead the committee issued a far weaker resolution asking for USDA assistance to the industry in developing risk-based standards — you can read that as voluntary guidance — for the industry. The committee stopped well short of asking for governmental oversight as United and PMA did.

Perhaps the regional grower groups will feel victorious because they won this vote in this venue, but what it really does is fracture the industry and make it more difficult for the trade to present a unified front in Washington.

Unfortunately, if the industry is not united, its voice is less likely to count. This means that policy that affects the industry, instead of being created in consultation with the industry, will happen without the industry’s vote. That is a problem.

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