United Fresh Summary of Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee Meetings
The 2019 Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee met on Wednesday, August 14 and Thursday August 15, 2019 to discuss and review their recommendations to Secretary Perdue on ways the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) can best meet the needs of the produce industry around the nation. The group’s main topics included: trade, production, labor and food safety. The committee members’ range of experience and backgrounds came to the forefront during these discussions, providing for a healthy debate on many topics. The main objective for Thursday was to allow time for the working groups to meet and reexamine their recommendations for potential adjustments prior to presenting them to the full committee on Friday.
Thursday’s schedule of events included several presentations and guest speakers and was kicked off with opening remarks from the designated federal officer, Senior Aid at the USDA Darrell Hughes and a brief presentation from Lewis Koski, CEO of Metrc, a company known for their government partnership on cannabis legalization. Koski spoke on the importance of supporting public private partnerships and offered ways to create more efficient regulatory systems. After his presentation, Robert Guenther, Senior Vice President of Public Policy at United Fresh Produce Association, made a statement and lead an impromptu question-and-answer session on the current state of Trade. Guenther emphasized the importance of finding solutions over finger-pointing amidst the contentious conversation around trade, the shared desire to increase produce consumption across all members of the produce industry and the need to generate a multipronged approach to a resolution. He included increased infrastructure funding, further access to fresh produce for children, increased state block grants and research funding as well as immigration reform as parts of this approach. Following his statement Mr. Guenther took questions from the committee members on the USMCA deal and its potential collateral damage, the state of trade affairs prior to this administration, consumer and grower pressure, fair trade and NAFTA’s impact on the tomato industry. These questions highlighted the variety of perspectives at the table regarding the wider conversation on trade especially regarding domestic vs international interests.
Following Guenther’s session, the group’s scheduled speaker, Jason Hafemeister, Secretary Perdue’s Trade Policy Coordinator and Foreign Agricultural Service Acting Associate, provided insight on the current state of agricultural trade across all sectors. After a series of questions and discussion, the working group presented their findings, which included the following: enforcement of the “Buy American” program in schools, penalties for misrepresentation of products, trade promotion and protection for U.S. growers with a question of potentially looking into seasonal protection. There was strong debate around the entire conversation on trade so the working group’s recommendations will likely go through further editing.
The production working group followed the recommendations from the trade team and started off with an overview of the Pesticide Data Program from Brenda Foos, Director of Regulatory Support and Science Policy Division at the US environmental Protection Agency. This group’s draft recommendations included a call for more research for specialty crops, more funding to universities studying the industry’s daily challenges, as well as raised crop insurance. Additionally, the group emphasized a need to investigate label inconsistency, legacy materials, overspray and off target chemical application with an emphasis on the cases of Dicamba drift.
Next, the committee discussed labor with a presentation from Jody McDaniel, Chief of Environmental, Economics and Demographics Branch of the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service and Brian Pasternak, Director of Program Services at the US Department of Labor. The industry’s main concern was eloquently summarized by Bret Erickson, Senior Vice President of Business Affairs of J&D Produce that, “we can either import our food or we can import our labor”. This line emphasized the industry’s domestic labor shortage and their need for immigration reform. They specifically highlighted a desire for more robust survey information, adjustment of the 51% rule as many grower’s pack for others, and programs that identify preferred employers. The groups presentation concluded with a presentation from Bruce Lammers, an Administrator from the USDA Rural Development division on the Farm Labor Housing Direct Loans and Grants Program.
The final working group on food safety presented at the end of the day with opening remarks from United Fresh’s Vice President of Food Safety, Dr. Jennifer McEntire, who discussed Agricultural Water Regulation. Her presentation and the discussion included comments on the 2018 Produce Safety Alliance Water Summit, the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement becoming an unofficial “law of the land” for growers in the state, and the Harmonized Agriculture Water Working Group. The working group emphasized the need for further science-based water microbiologic testing standards, collaboration with the FDA and the CDC on issues of food safety, townhall style meetings, more elaborate testing for consumer safety that extend beyond E. coli detection and finally, an increase in further study of possible preventative measures. The day concluded with the Food Safety Working group and reconvened the next morning.
Further information on the meeting is available on the Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee page here as well as a full list of the committee members. The committee will take time to finalize their recommendations before presenting them to the Secretary and publishing them online.