WASHINGTON, D.C. — After quarter of a century at the Agricultural Marketing Service and a close contact for produce industry leaders for 35 years, Bob Keeney is retiring.
Keeney’s last day as U.S. Department of Agriculture AMS Deputy Administrator is Oct. 5. He was recognized by United Fresh Produce Association President Tom Stenzel during Oct. 2 breakfast session of the association’s Washington Public Policy Conference.
Before coming to USDA, Keeney worked for United Fresh in government relations for ten years, so his connection to the industry is deep-rooted. Prior to that, he was with the Federal Maritime Commission for about five years.
Stenzel praised Keeney’s 35 years of service to the fresh produce industry, and his role as deputy administrator since 1994. Keeney’s oversight extended to the fruit and vegetable inspection programs, marketing orders and agreements, the Market News program, the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act and $350 million in annual commodity purchases for domestic feeding programs.
“We will always appreciate everything you have done throughout your career,” Stenzel said.
Keeney said he enjoyed being a part of the progress of the industry.
“We’ve done well together, that is the important thing,” Keeney said to more than 500 WPPC attendees.
Industry leaders said Keeney will be missed.
“He has been terrific,” said Laura Phelps, president of the American Mushroom Institute. “He is the epitome of a public servant, really being fair and open and always available for advice or counsel. We will miss him.”
Phelps said Keeney, a Washington Nationals baseball team season ticket holder, will have new leisure time to follow the Nationals’ post-season run.
In an interview Oct. 1, Keeney said the industry helped the agency implement changes in the inspection service after the Hunts Point bribery scandal of 1999, when eight USDA employees and 13 others at the Hunts Point Market were arrested after a three-year investigation by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General.
“Hunts Point was a difficult time, but we gained so much from that,” Keeney said, citing improved oversight and management of the inspection service. “The relationship with the industry became even better.
“I will always appreciate how the industry stepped forward and really did help us, supporting those changes,” he said.
Other improvements include new efficiencies for the PACA, more responsive grade standards and getting more fresh produce for school meals.
Keeney praised the ability of AMS employees to implement new plans, such as the Oct. 1 merging of the fresh and processed divisions of the fruit and vegetable inspection service.
The AMS had about 1,800 employees in 1987; there are about 1,100 now. The workload has stayed about the same but the workforce has been reduced because of technology, more efficient management and fewer administrators, Keeney said.
Keeney said the Obama administration supports the fruit and vegetable industry, from nutrition education to changes to school meals and the promotion of local and regional food systems.
Keeney predicts an expanded role by the AMS in providing food safety audits, particularly for smaller growers. He believes fresh fruit and vegetable purchases for the school lunch program will increase and suggested there will be continued expansion and use of commodity research and promotion programs.
He said the AMS will be in good hands with Chuck Parrott taking over the deputy administrator post.
“(Chuck) will be a terrific person to lead the program,” he said.
Keeney said he and his wife will move to Outer Banks of North Carolina, near Mateo, within a couple of months.