BALM, Fla. — Concerns about labor and implementation of new food safety rules dominated grower discussions at the Nov. 9 Florida Ag Expo.

Food safety, labor issues discussed at Florida Ag ExpoGrowers packed the University of Florida Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences’ Gulf Coast Research and Education Center to hear about key issues.

In a roundtable discussion on the Food Safety Modernization Act, Gerry Odell, chief operating officer of farming and packing for Immokalee-based Lipman, asked about the new regulations.

“Clearly, private industry has been way ahead on this issue, in terms of trying to create a system of regulations primarily coming from the buying side of our business, to regulate how we manage our product through the distribution chain,” Odell said. “What efforts will be made to coordinate with the private industry regulations and procedures that are already in place so we don’t create a whole other level of bureaucracy and expense that’s already covered by what’s presently done?”

Leanne Skelton, senior policy analyst with the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said the FDA allows buyers to establish their own specifications for grower suppliers.

“Some folks would like this regulation to be a ceiling, others a floor,” she said. “We’re not in a position to tell any group that you can’t go above this. It’s really a matter of making sure the business relationships understand what they’re asking each other and when appropriate to push back.”

Labor became a big topic during a grower discussion on production challenges.

“H-2A is a big challenge in New York, it’s expensive,” said Tony Piedimonte, vice president of Wimauma-based Wm. P. Hearne Produce Co. LLC. “We find ourselves moving targets in programs they keep changing. We would like to see some more stability in the programs. We are in desperate need of a reliable workforce at a reasonable price.”

The University of Florida, Maitland-based Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association and Florida Tomato Committee and Dover-based Florida Strawberry Growers Association sponsored the show. It attracted around 900 participants, similar to last year, organizers said.