Conference keys on school nutrition, immigration reformWASHINGTON, D.C. — Focusing on the continuing need for immigration reform and the fight to keep in place fruit and vegetable friendly school nutrition standards, the 2014 United Fresh Produce Association’s Washington Conference brought together a crowd of nearly 500 industry participants for the Sept. 8-10 event.

Meeting during a week that Congress was in session — not the case last year, when a government shutdown disrupted meetings with lawmakers and Obama administration officials — the 2014 Washington Conference offered ample opportunities for engagement, said Ron Carkowski, chairman of United Fresh and president and CEO of Four Seasons Family of Companies.

“We’ve had a great opportunity to hear from leaders in our government and experts in the industry to tell us how to get our goals accomplished,” he said.

While Congressional inaction on the immigration issue is now an accepted fact — at least until after the elections in November — industry leaders still pressed that issue in meeting with lawmakers on Sept. 9 and Sept. 10.

The school nutrition issue was a major point of emphasis during the event and a major talking point in visits with lawmakers. A general session luncheon event on Sept. 9 event featured three high profile leaders who support keeping school nutrition standards in place.

“Retreat is not an option,” said Jamie Barnett, retired Navy officer and spokesman for Mission: Readiness.

The School Nutrition Association has asked Congress to give struggling school districts a waiver from those updated nutrition standards, but Barnett and officials with the National PTA and the American Heart Association lent their support to maintain the standards in view of the battle against childhood obesity and related health problems.

The GMO debate, the California drought, international trade, immigration, and pending food safety regulations were workshop topics at the Washington Conference.

Lawmakers Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., warned of government over-regulation of farmland because of sped-up listing of threatened plants and animals under the Endangered Species Act.

The familiar components of the Washington Conference — the March on Capitol Hill, the wildly popular Fresh Festival on Capitol Hill and the town hall meeting at Food and Drug Administration offices in College Park, Md. — all were successfully reprised in the 2014 event.

In the town hall meeting at FDA offices, FDA officials described progress with a pending rule on food traceability and designation of high risk foods but could not say when the rule will be published, what commodities will be on the high risk list and if commodities could be added or taken off the list.

The FDA also discussed work on changes to its food sampling program and what that might mean for testing of pathogens on produce.

Mike Taylor, deputy commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine at the FDA, told a general session breakfast crowd on Sept. 10 that the agency will meet its court-appointed deadlines in August and October 2015 to finish food safety regulation on preventive controls for food facilities and the produce safety rule, respectively.

“My boss is potentially held in contempt if we don’t get those rules done, so we are going to get the rules done,” Taylor said. “Don’t expect any extensions to the next comment period — it is not feasible.”