I had the chance on Aug. 31 to chat with Karla Whalen, Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act (PACA) Division Chief at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

9:00 a.m. Tom Karst: What are your priorities now at PACA?

9:00 a.m. Karla Whalen: A top priority for us - and a long standing challenge - has been reducing the complaint backlog. We have been able to halve that backlog over the past two years. In particular starting Aug. 1, we have dedicated three PACA attorneys that will solely work on reducing the backlog. About two years ago we had about 90 cases waiting for legal clearance. We’ve nearly cut our backlog in half. We’re now down to 46 cases. So the backlog is being eliminated. Once the backlog is cleared, there will be faster disciplinary prosecutions and generally better service to the industry.

 9:03 a.m. Karst: How long has it taken for some of the complaints to be processed?

9:04 a.m. Whalen: When the backlog was at its longest, it would take 12 to 18 months for a complaint to be dealt with. We are seeing a seven month time frame now and we hope to get that down to three to four months. That is a huge turnaround.

9:05 a.m. Karst: What is the scope of what PACA does?

9:06 a.m. Whalen: More than 14,500 trading firms and individuals are licensed by USDA. The PACA division receives about 1,900 calls requesting help with problems, such as interpretation of inspection certificates, advice on contract disputes and bankruptcy payments. Last year, we resolved nearly 2,000 PACA claims totaling some $30 million.

 9:06 a.m. Karst: What kind of industry outreach does PACA try to do?

9:07 a.m. Whalen: We have done some novel things. We have done narrated power point web seminar presentations that are available on our web site www.ams.usda.gov/paca. For example, we have presentation on how to complete a PACA complaint and other online training tools. We are doing much more outreach to the Spanish and Korean communities. They are both a large segment of the produce industry. We had a first-ever PACA web seminar conducted in Spanish, and that had very high interest from participants.We updated our PACA educational pamphlets in English and are translating them to Spanish and Korean languages. We are about a month away from having those available. We also will be doing a blog on PACA very shortly.

 9:09 a.m. Karst: How does the push to cut budgets in Washington affect the PACA? When does PACA anticipate the next fee increase?

 9:10 a.m. Whalen: We are a fee-for-service organization. The PACA branch is sitting very well. The immediate impact (related to federal budget cutbacks) is not there. We had a fee increase Oct. 1 of 2010. I think by 2014-15, we may be looking at a fee increase again.

9:10 a.m. Karst: What has PACA done to become more efficient?

9:11 a.m. Whalen: We have continually tried to make ourselves more (efficient) and we have done that. We now have 70 full-time staff members (down from 116 in 2000) in three regional offices and Washington, D.C.

 9:12 a.m. Karst: PACA also is involved with Country of Origin Labeling relative to PACA misbranding rules. How many Country of Origin Labeling statute PACA misbranding incidents have led to fines?

 9:13 a.m. Whalen: If there is a COOL violation, it can also be a PACA violation. In 2010, there were 362 misbranding allegations, the majority of those related to the COOL audits. In fiscal year 2010 warning communications were handed under the COOL Statute to PACA retailers but no fines were leveled.

 9:14 a.m. Karst: What are a couple of your goals for the next two or three years?

9:15 a.m. Whalen: One is really getting a handle on formal complaints, sending that (backlog) to the history books. If we can get there in the next year, that will be incredible achievement.

Secondly, I would like to increase our outreach in a cost effective manner to the entire industry. We want to develop ways to reach out to diverse segments within the produce industry, such as Korean traders. We have had a number of joint outreach efforts with the Dispute Resolution Corporation in Canada relating to the push for financial trust protection in Canada.