I had the chance to chat Dec. 14 with Tom O’Brien, Washington, D.C., representative for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association.
4:00 p.m. Karst: How did you get connected to the fresh produce industry and the Produce Marketing Association?
4:00 p.m. O’Brien: In 1993, I joined USDA. I came as a political appointee with Lon Hatamiya, who was appointed to be administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service. Lon and I had practiced law together in Sacramento. Before 1993, I was an attorney in Sacramento, California and am a northern California native. So while I had a general law practice that occasionally handled food and even some agricultural matters, my introduction to agriculture came at USDA.
4:02 p.m. Karst: What was your title at USDA?
4:02 p.m. O’Brien: The last title I had was associate administrator at AMS. I was there from November of 1993 to February of 1999.
4:03 p.m. Karst: What did you like about working at USDA?
4:03 p.m. O’Brien: What I like in particular about where I was at USDA, was that it was really the intersection between the political appointees and the career employees and so you kind you have to be the one to translate between those two groups and make things work. I liked that quite a bit. I also liked being in AMS, where three fourths of its budget comes from user-fee programs. It is more entrepreneurial and leaner than some other agencies.
4:04 p.m. Karst: You kept an interest in agriculture and produce. What’s the scope of what you do for PMA?
4:05 p.m. O’Brien: I represent PMA in Washington. These days that is a lot of work on food safety. The farm bill also continues, since it wasn’t finished in the super committee. So it is both regulatory work and legislative work. I deal a lot with my old agency at USDA, and certainly other agencies: FDA, the Trade Representative’s Office, in addition to Congress.
4:06 p.m. Karst: What do you like about working for PMA in Washington?
4:06 O’Brien: I began working for PMA in 2008. Long before I started working or PMA, I knew PMA from my time at USDA and also working for the governor of California. Because PMA knows the day to day workings of their members so well, they have a good sense of what are real issues and what are not real issues for their membership.
4:07 p.m. Karst: Food safety is looming larger and larger. What is your sense of the FDA produce safety regulation? What do you expect when that comes out?