(Nov. 19) KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Acting agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner said rules on two highly anticipated industry issues may not be far off.

In an interview with The Packer Nov. 14, Conner said the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rule on adding fruit and vegetable vouchers to the Women Infants and Children nutrition program is expected to be released by the end of the year.

Another rule providing phytosanitary requirements on shipments of Florida citrus from canker-infested regions is just around the corner as well, he indicated.

Conner acknowledged that the addition of fruits and vegetables to the WIC program has been a slow process and subject to challenge.

“We’ve been very cautious about letting food and diet science drive our modifications to the WIC food packages and it’s been a slow methodical process,” he said. Conner said there have been a lot of external interests wanting to protect commodities that have had access to the program in the past.

The WIC food packages, serving about 2 million women and 4 million children annually, have not changed substantially in 30 years.

In 2005, the Institute of Medicine recommended that the food packages should be updated to reflect the 2005 Dietary Guidelines. A proposed rule was published in August 2006 that would add vouchers for fruit and vegetable purchases in WIC food packages and also reduced the emphasis on dairy and juice products.

The proposed rule allocated $8 per month in vouchers for mothers and $6 per month for children. While drawing support from nutrition advocates and industry lobbyists, the proposed rule has drawn fire from dairy and juice interests.

“We wanted this to be a different process with literally the best food science and the best diet science we have available to make the modifications to the package,” he said. Conner said the end result will be WIC food packages that will contain a lot more fruits and vegetables.

Meanwhile, Conner said the USDA’s rule on Florida citrus shipments is also on the front burner for the agency.

“It’s a tough, tough issue, and I will tell you we struggled with this one,” he said. “You’ve got competing concerns within the same sector but different regions of the country,” he said.

However, Conner said the USDA will have a plan that will allow Florida citrus marketers to continue to have a viable fresh fruit market, while at the same time not threatening citrus growers in California, Texas and other states.

Under the plan, no fruit showing signs of canker of any kind will be shipped out of Florida, Conner said.