Tom Karst, national editor
Tom Karst, national editor

ARLINGTON, Va. — If the most essential element at the start of any pursuit is passion, then the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee is off to a rousing beginning.

The diverse group displayed plenty of conviction during its two-day meeting in Arlington at the end of September.

During the course of the meeting — and even more evident in sidebar conversations — individuals were passionate about a variety of industry issues.

In moving around circles of conversation and listening to the formal proceedings, I heard concerns about:

 

  •  the effect of food safety regulations;
  •  the heavy toll inflicted on the Florida citrus industry by citrus greening (and the need for more research);
  •  redundant third-party audits;
  •  continuing concern about farm labor and the urgent need for a more workable H-2A agricultural guest worker program;
  •  the deepening damage caused by the California drought;
  •  the smear job against fruit juice in nutrition guidelines;
  •  the poor state of rail and port infrastructure;
  •  the urgent need for nutrition education for children and consumers; and
  •  rising awareness — and perhaps alarm — about the GMO labeling debate.

 

Paul Newman, with Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers, Wenatchee, Wash., who was elected chairman of the committee, captured the challenge that faces the group.

“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 told me.

Members have organized working groups that will address several of the topics to create recommendations or statements for Vilsack to consider.

In the tricky process of putting together recommendations, the committee needs to maintain its passion, that edge of intensity, that channels Jack Bauer of “24.”

For example, the committee could say:

“Secretary Vilsack, help us comply with food safety regulations, dammit!”

OK, that’s a little far-fetched to conclude each recommendation with a expletive and exclamation, and the plea is much too generalized to be of much good. The point is that this group of 25 can’t let the bureaucracy of the advisory committee stultify and dilute their passion.

Passion without knowledge is ill-served, so the working group will have to complete its due diligence and identify topics where the USDA can provide help.

Here are some of my observations from the Sept. 29-30 meeting:

 

  •  Diversity of the committee was striking, but the most vocal members of the committee tended to be larger players. That seemed to change in smaller group settings as members became comfortable with each other.

  •  On the topic of redundant audits, one grower-member said a third-party auditing company flagged the company for several violations. As he left the farm, the representative from the auditing company handed the grower the report card and said “We can help you with this ... give us a call.” Several committee members said that represented a conflict of interest, and the story added to the irritation members of the committee have with the third-party auditing system as it exists today.

  •  The concept of a USDA seal or brand for produce safety compliance with good agricultural practice audits got some play during the meeting. Can the USDA better market its brand/logo as a stamp of approval for safe produce?

  •  While the topic wasn’t ever squarely in the spotlight, several committee members linked to the processing industry voiced strong support for “all forms” of fruits and vegetable in various USDA nutrition programs.

  •  As usual, the USDA presented helpful overviews about several USDA Fruit and Vegetable Programs. Terry Long, division director for the Market News division, relayed information on an initiative to add reporting of local food.

 

Long said USDA is pushing to expand local and regional food price reporting, with a focus on farmers markets, farmers’ auctions and food hubs. Check out the USDA Web explanation of this online.

Long said the National Fruit and Vegetable Report tracks the percentage of fruit and vegetable ads that include the word “local.”

That’s new information to me, and it strikes me as very useful data in tracking the ebb and flow of local food promotion by region throughout the year.

Coming soon, he said, is the addition of the other commodities (dairy, poultry and meat) for tracking local ads and adding the state branded items as a “flag” in the retail report.

The committee’s next meeting is tentatively set for sometime during the first two weeks of March.

While the agency has a staggering 200 advisory committees of one capacity or another, it seems this committee won’t shrink its larger-than-life passion as it prepares to outline what the industry needs.

At least I hope so, dammit!

tkarst@thepacker.com

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