Tom Karst, National Editor
Tom Karst, National Editor

After a lapse of better than three years, it was good to see the re-emergence of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack named new members to the committee, which meets up to twice a year to advise the USDA on issues affecting the fruit and vegetable industry.

Why the lapse of three years since it last met in 2011?

Apparently the delay was intended, in part, to ensure diversity in the pool of potential candidates. Avoid groupthink by injecting more diversity, adding farmers market and local food advocates with multinational executives, processors with fresh marketers, and so on.

The committee was first chartered in 2001 and began in 2002. Since then, the committee has met 14 times and developed more than 60 statements and recommendations for the USDA.

After reading the news coverage of the committee’s appointment and previous work, one member of the Fresh Produce Industry Discussion Group said “I wonder how many recommendations the USDA actually adopted.”

Good question.

I’ve been to most of the committee meetings over the years — they are open to the public — and I’ve always been impressed with the work that committee members put in. They are nothing if not ambitious.

That’s the rub. Often the committee asks the USDA and Vilsack for a little more than the agency can deliver.

In 2011, the committee recommended the USDA and the Department of Labor work together in finding labor solutions for agriculture.

And bless his heart, Vilsack has spoken up for immigration reform often enough over the years. To no avail, of course.

Of course, until someone actually delivers immigration reform, it won’t hurt for the committee to ask for a solution from the USDA.

After all, Congress, President Obama and all the high-powered lobbyists in Washington, D.C., have come up short.

Besides the inevitable (but maddeningly futile) talk about immigration, what else will be on the agenda?

In the news release on the committee, Agricultural Marketing Service Administrator Anne Alonzo framed its input this way: “The new members will advise the department on how to best meet the industry’s needs related to issues such as food safety and nutrition education, among others,” she said.

With Cathy Burns, president of the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, on the advisory committee, I’m sure nutrition education will be right in her wheelhouse.

The topic of food safety also will be huge for the committee, as rulemaking grinds on at the FDA and the USDA grows into its advisory and consultive role.

The USDA will no doubt educate the committee on the necessity of fee increases for some programs, and perhaps ask for recommendations on how those fee increases should be presented.

Getting buy-in from the industry on the need for adjustments to fees is part of the value of the committee to the USDA.

And if Secretary Vilsack can budge the logjam on immigration reform, the quest for Middle East peace is waiting in the wings.

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