It was both good news and bad news for fresh produce interests in the House agricultural appropriations bill.
The House Appropriations Committee did not touch funding for Specialty Crop Block Grants and the Specialty Crop Research Initiative in the fiscal year 2012 agriculture appropriations bill. However, hundreds of millions of dollars were cut from nutrition programs and the committee asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to revisit its January proposal to double the amount of fruits and vegetables and raise other nutrition standards for school meals.
Also, the committee removed funding for the $3 million Microbiological Data Program. That program has attracted occasional controversy since its debut in 2004, with industry leaders questioning the intent of the program and calling it a duplication of FDA testing.
The fiscal year 2012 agriculture appropriations bill is expected to be considered by the full House on June 15, said Robert Guenther, senior vice president for public policy for United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C. He said the Senate may forward its 2012 appropriations bill later this summer, so it will be several months before the final 2012 budget is determined.
“Looking at the 13.4% reduction overall, and the fact that for the most part most of the specialty crop provisions we are aware of were left untouched, that’s a good sign for this bill,” Guenther said.
For nutrition, there are policy issues and also spending reductions related to the Women Infants and Children program, he said. The bill provided $5.9 billion for the WIC program for fiscal year 2012, down from $6.73 billion funded in fiscal year 2011.
In its report on the bill, the committee said the USDA school meal rule’s “overly aggressive implementation schedule and unrealistic demands on changes in nutrient content” will lead to what it called burdensome implementation costs of $7 billion over five years.
The committee said it is asking the USDA Food and Nutrition Service to issue a new proposed rule for school nutrition standards that would not require an increase in the cost of providing school meals.
Tom O’Brien, Washington, D.C., representative for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, said the bill leaves some cuts to the agencies to determine.
“If this goes into law, AMS needs to cut $9 million from its budget,” O’Brien said. Congress specified the defunding of the MDP program but left the balance of the cuts to AMS.