(UPDATED, Oct. 2) ARLINGTON, Va. — The newly minted Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee chose their leaders and organized into working groups at the Sept. 29-30 meeting.
Paul Newman, with Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers, Wenatchee, Wash., was elected chairman of the committee. Beth Knorr of Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Conservancy, Peninsula, Ohio, was elected vice-chairwoman of the 25-member committee.
First introduced in 2001, the committee last met in March 2011; the USDA announced the members of the latest version of the committee in July.
“My goal here as chairman is to take these numerous topics and streamline them down into a solid message we can send (Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack) that he too will feel passionate about and move forward with,” Newman said. The next meeting of the committee was tentatively set sometime during the first two weeks of March next year.
Knorr said she was pleased to see diversity on the committee.
“The farmers I work with are definitely excited that there is representation from smaller scale producers on this board, and it is helpful for all us to hear what we are all facing because when we do make recommendations they are stronger because they are beneficial to everyone,” she said.
The committee set up working groups on industry needs relating to research, consumer education, ag labor, food safety compliance and the role of the USDA, transportation and port infrastructure and border inspections.
“Secretary Vilsack needs to hear what the issues are across the industry and potential solutions and that’s what we’re committed to do,” said committee member Cathy Burns, president of the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, Burns is the co-chairwoman of the food safety issues working group, along with Lorri Koster of Salinas-based Mann Packing.
Chuck Parrott, Deputy Administrator of the USDA Fruit and Vegetable Program, was moderator for the group and said he was pleased with how they formed working groups.
“All of us at USDA are looking forward to see what recommendations come out of the committee,” he said.
The diversity of the advisory committee is a plus, said Anne Alonzo, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service administrator.
“The fact that you are from different parts of the U.S., that you are small, that you are larger, that you are processors, are growers, it is helpful to us to understand the diversity of the market we represent,” she said.
The first day of the two-day meeting included presentations by a variety of USDA officials, including leaders of the AMS Commodity Procurement Division, the Specialty Crops Inspection Division, the Market News Division, Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act Division and the Marketing Orders and Agreements Division.
Leanne Skelton, AMS/FDA liaison, spoke about USDA involvement in the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act.
Alonzo said the USDA expects the committee to weigh in on food safety.
“Food safety has been a focus and will continue to be a focus,” she said. “You need to know we are working closely with the FDA.”
The USDA will revise its food safety audits for good agricultural practices and good manufacturing practices to conform to the final regulations of the food safety act. Alonzo said the USDA is also exploring if it can make audits harmonized with the Global Food Safety Initiative.
Increasing fruit and vegetable procurement by the USDA has also been a recommendation of previous committees, and Alonzo said the AMS, as of September, purchased more than $601 million in fruits and vegetables totaling more than 1 billion pounds in fiscal year 2014.
In fiscal year 2013, Alonzo said the AMS purchased 20% more fruits and vegetables than the previous year, largely because of increase in school meal purchases.
The USDA is unveiling a new pilot program for buying unprocessed fruits and vegetables by schools. The program, expected to be conducted in eight states in the coming months, allows states to set local preferences for USDA commodity purchases.
In total, Alonzo said the USDA is awarding about $109 million in grants to specialty crop interests this year.